The British Dental association has recently undertaken some research into sugar levels in baby food. Sugar content in baby food is something I have recently become aware with an eight month old. We are right in the middle of our weaning journey.

As a dentist I am obviously very aware of what I am feeding my little one, wanting to keep sugar levels low to keep her teeth healthy (which came through at 4 months!) but also to start her on a food journey that won’t revolve around sweet things. We know many health reasons to limit sugar such as obesity and diabetes as well as dental health.

Although I tried to make some of my own foods in the early days it is difficult to make foods the right consistency and also, as we lead a busy life, we are often eating out and about where carrying your own home made purees is a hassle.

I found myself standing in the supermarkets with my baby and 4 year old trying to read the contents of the pouches, shocked to find that particularly the foods aimed at under 7 months were full of sugar!

This has been confirmed by the research done by the BDA who are calling for action on the obscene levels of sugar in many popular brands of baby food pouches to protect children’s oral health.

Levels vary between brands and also there seems to be lower levels of sugar in jars compared to pouches. Another point of note is if foods are sucked directly from a pouch, the food spends more time in contact with baby teeth, just as they are erupting and putting teeth at risk of erosion and decay. It is important to consider sugar and acid levels from the moment the teeth break through.

There is a lack of clear messaging from manufacturers not to consume products straight from the pouch in both packaging and their wider marketing collateral, with brands such as Annabel Karmel explicitly stating “eat straight from the pouch.”

We have also known for a long time that although fruit is healthy for us, it become less so if consumed in a broken down form such as juice, smoothie or baby puree. These are considered as free sugars. When consumed the sugars are instantly in contact with teeth and the body has to do less digestion so there is a faster sugar uptake so increasing blood sugar levels (again increasing obesity, heart disease and diabetes risk).

My concern is not so much with the “fruit pouches”, which you would expect to have a high sugar content, but the pouches marketed as vegetables or meals that we would consider as savoury but have fruit included in them for no reason. My only reasoning that this unnecessary and harmful fruit would be added is that babies are more likely to enjoy them making parents buy them more, all a marketing ploy that puts our babies health at risk.

In my experience the pouches for 7+ months are much better than those aimed at younger, so I moved my little one onto 7 month pouches almost instantly. The only difference is the consistency, with a few more lumps which she was able to tolerate quickly.

It is recommended to limit the amount of free sugars.

Maximum recommended sugar intake per day by age group:

  • Four to six years old – 19g (5 teaspoons)
  • Seven to 10 years – 24g (6 teaspoons)
  • From 11 years – 30g (7 teaspoons)

There’s no guideline limit for children under four years of age, but it’s recommended that they avoid free sugars as much as possible. So my common sense says that you can have about 5g more a day for every 3 years of life (based on no science but maths). So if you can have 19g at age 4 you should limit free sugars to 14g free sugars for a baby. Remember all pureed food is free sugars. They can eat as much whole fruits and veg as they like.

Lets see what common products contain:

  • Ella’s kitchen- 4+ months – Butternut squash, carrots, apple and prunes- 10.8g sugar
  • Ella’s kitchen- 4+ months – Carrots, peas, and pears- 8.8g sugar
  • Piccolo- 4+ months – Carrot, squash and sweet potato- 2.8g
  • Piccolo- 4+ months – Pear, Mango and Kale- 8.6g
  • Tesco- 4+ months – Pea, parsnip and pear- 2.9g
  • Tesco- 4+ months – Green veggies- 0.5g
  • Hipp organic- 4+ months – Carrots and Peas- 1.75g
  • Heinz by nature- 6+ months- Carrot, Potato and Courgette- 1.5g
  • Babeasa- 6+ months- Butternut squash, Carrot and Broccoli- 4.8g
  • Asda little angels- 6+ months- Organic creamy root vegetables- 4.4g

You can see here that it varies massively. I have only looked at vegetable containing foods as the ones labelled as fruit are obviously a lot higher and again only comparing those foods marketed as ‘first foods’. The key message here is to read the labels. Always check the ‘of which are sugars’ part of the label and I would recommend aiming for less than 5g. You know then across the three meals your baby is unlikely to get more than 15g.

BDA research into 109 pouches aimed at children under 12-months-old found:

  • Over a quarter contained more sugar by volume than Coca Cola, with parents of infants as young as four months marketed pouches that contain the equivalent of up to 150% of the sugar levels of the soft drink. Those pouches are without exception fruit-based mixes.
  • ‘Boutique’ brands appear to have higher levels of sugar than traditional baby food brands or own brand alternatives, with market leaders Ella’s Kitchen and Annabel Karmel coming in for criticism. While high levels of ‘natural’ sugar have been described by manufacturers as inevitable with fruit-based pouches, some brands offer products based on similar ingredients that contain around half the levels of sugar of the worst offenders.
  • Some products examined aimed at four months plus contain up to two thirds of an adult’s recommended daily allowance (RDA) of sugar. Neither the World Health Organisation (WHO) nor the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) cite an RDA for children, simply stressing that as little should be consumed as possible.
  • Both UK and WHO guidance recommends weaning from six months old, so no products should be allowed to be marketed as ‘four months plus’. Nearly 40% of products examined were marketed at this age group.
  • The sector has consistently adopted disingenuous language highlighting the presence of only “naturally occurring sugars” or the absence of “added sugars”, with others making opaque claims of products being “nutritionally approved” or in line with infants’ “nutritional and developmental needs”. All high sugar products adopt ‘halo labelling’ principles, focusing on status as ‘organic’, ‘high in fibre’ or ‘containing 1 of your 5 a day’, misleading parents into thinking they are making healthy choices.
  • Over two thirds of the products examined exceeded the 5g of sugar per 100ml threshold set for the sugar levy applied to drinks. Dentists stress expansion of fiscal measures would likely have favourable outcomes in terms of encouraging reformulation.

The Department of Health and Social Care is expected to consult imminently on the marketing and labelling of infant foods, so watch this space!

For more information see the BDA article here.

In conclusion, yes, it is better to cook your own food but there are times when this is difficult and pouches can be the best option, just be aware to read the labels so you are being aware of what you are feeding your baby.

NB. Remember to brush twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste as soon as babies teeth come in! Also its best to have a check up with you before they are one to get used to attending the dentist. Contact the practice if your baby is still due to have their first exam.