In 2016, the Government challenged the food industry to reduce the overall sugar content of certain food categories by 20% by 2020, but baby and toddler foods were not included in this programme. Instead, the Government released draft commercial baby food and drink guidelines for consultation in 2020. Unfortunately, these guidelines have not been seen since, and there is now no limits or restrictions on how much sugar and salt can be in these products, alongside reports of high levels of obesity and tooth decay in children starting school.
Research conducted by the British Dental Association shows that many baby food pouches, which are aimed at infants under 12 months old, can contain more sugar by volume than Coca-Cola. Even more shockingly, some products examined contain up to two thirds of an adult's recommended daily allowance (RDA) of sugar. This is despite the fact that the WHO recommends infants have minimal to no sugars in their diet.
These finding are deeply concerning, especially when we know that one in three children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school, with children living in the most deprived areas twice as likely to be living with obesity than those living in the least deprived areas. This increase in obesity is already leading to more cases of type 2 diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure in children. The impact of nutrition on oral health is also significant, with tooth decay as the most common reason for hospital admission among children aged five to nine for the past four years.
Without clear guidance and regulation, baby and infant food products remain nutritional lucky-dips and are currently placing the health of future generations at real risk.
RCPCH President, Dr Camilla Kingdon said:
It’s a national disgrace that there is currently zero guidance on the salt and sugar levels in products aimed at infants, who are in a critical stage of their development. All paediatricians know that good nutrition is the foundation of good health and wellbeing, and that this foundation starts being built from infancy. Families also know this and want the best for their children, but the task of providing a healthy and balanced diet is not always an easy one – especially these days with the price of food sky high
In my own practice, I see parents of very small and vulnerable babies buy baby food pouches and pots with the assumption that they are giving their children the best start they can. The marketing strategies used on these parents are highly effective, with buzzwords such as ‘all organic’, ‘natural sugars’ and ‘nutritionally approved’. At best this disingenuous, at worst dangerous.
Food is such an important part of our lives and plays a huge role in both culture and identity. There isn’t just one diet that’s the perfect diet that we want everyone to have. Instead, we want to give people the option to have a healthy balanced diet that is also achievable and accessible within their individual environments. But we cannot rely on the food industry to provide infants with good nutrition without adequate regulation in place.
Nutritional education, alongside government leadership and regulations are desperately needed. The future wellbeing of our children is too important.
British Dental Association Chair Eddie Crouch said:
The Government can’t keep kicking this can down the road.
Tooth decay is the number one reason for hospital admissions among young children. Yet Ministers are letting parents be duped into buying foods that can hook their kids to sugar from infancy.
Without action here the food industry will continue touting products more sugary than cola as healthy options.
Notes to Editors
- RCPCH responded to the commercial baby food and drink guidelines for consultation in 2020. [Available on request]
- The British Dental Association conducted market analysis of brands undertaken May-June 2022, examining 109 products marketed at infants under 12 months, covering both sweet and savoury. See full data