Tougher baby food regulations needed to improve child health, say experts

The measure forms part of a range of recommendations made by RCPCH as part of our ambitious “Prevention Vision”. The amount of free sugar in baby food should be reduced and the Government should place a “moratorium” on public health funding cuts, according to bold recommendations outlined today by leading child health experts.

Ahead of the Government’s Prevention green paper, we have published our own ambitious strategy, setting out clear proposals for how to transform the health and wellbeing of children and young people in the UK.

In Prevention Vision for Child Health, we call on the Government to enforce mandatory limits on the amount of free sugar that can be used in baby foods. Our vision says that consuming too many foods high in free sugars* (which includes fruit sugars) risks babies developing a sweet tooth early on which can lead to tooth decay, poor diet and overweight.

Professor Mary Fewtrell, Assistant Officer for Health Improvement and Nutrition Lead for RCPCH, said:

Part of the problem is that baby weaning products often contain a high proportion of fruit or sweeter tasting vegetables – and parents also often use fruit or sweet tasting vegetables as first foods at home. Pureed or liquid baby foods packaged in pouches also often have a high energy density and a high proportion of sugar. If sucked from the pouch, the baby also misses out on the opportunity to learn about eating from a spoon or feeding themselves.  Baby foods can be labelled ‘no added sugar’ if the sugar comes from fruit – but all sugars have the same effects on the teeth and on metabolism.

It’s important to recognise that babies have an innate preference for sweet tastes but the key is not to reinforce that preference and to expose them to a variety of different flavours and food textures. Babies are very willing to try different flavours if they’re given the chance – and it’s important that they’re introduced to a variety of flavours, including more bitter tasting foods such as broccoli and spinach, from a young age.

Professor Fewtrell continued:

Family life is busier now than ever before, so jars and pouches prove popular with parents because they are so convenient. We therefore want to see the Government introduce mandatory guidelines on how much free sugar they can contain. We also think there should be more investment in public health education to advise parents on the impact of free sugars. For parents making their own baby food, we’d encourage them to balance the sweeter tastes with more bitter ones.

Excess sugar is one of the leading causes of tooth decay, which is the most common oral disease in children, affecting nearly a quarter (23%) of five-year-olds. It is the most common reason for hospital admission for 5-9 year olds, and the sixth most common procedure in hospital for children aged 4 years and under. Sugar intake also contributes to overweight and obesity.

Other key recommendations from the RCPCH include:

  • Government to introduce mandatory guidelines on the free sugar content of baby food
  • Government to place a “moratorium” on public health funding cuts
  • Smoking to be prohibited in playgrounds, sports fields, and on NHS premises
  • Graduated driving licences to be introduced for all new drivers
  • Advertising to be banned for all formula milks for babies under 1 year
  • Bespoke child health workforce strategy to be developed across the UK to address worrying staff shortages
  • National mental health survey to be carried out every three years to identify the prevalence of mental health problems in young people
  • All forms of marketing of e-cigarettes for non-medicinal use to be prohibited

Professor Russell Viner, RCPCH President, said:

We have a real opportunity to transform the future of child health in the UK, and I think politicians are beginning to realise that investing in children reaps real benefits for the wider population.

Our recommendations are backed by evidence and are practical. They will make a huge difference to child health and we urge the Government to consider them as a matter of urgency. If we don’t get it right for children, then the health of the whole nation is put in jeopardy.

The RCPCH published its recommendations as a formal response to the Prevention Vision published by the Department of Health and Social Care in November 2018. 

  • *Free sugar, that is sugar added by the manufacturer or naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices, is linked to a range of potentially serious health conditions both during childhood and in later life. Currently, due to the lack of regulation around free sugars, foods and drinks labelled as “no added sugar” or “naturally-occurring sugar” often contain substantial quantities of free sugar made from honey or fruit juice