Stop adding sugar to our babies’ food

The World Health Organization raises the alarm about baby foods, which would be too full of sugar: here are the recommendations for parents

Much sugar in baby foods

A large number of baby food is marketed as suitable for children under the age of 6 months although many of these products contain inadequate levels of sugar . This, in a nutshell, is the alarm raised by two new studies by the World Health Organization of the European Region . The WHO recommendations indicate that children should be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life and that complementary foods should not be advertised as intended for infants of an inferior age.

” Good nutrition in early childhood – says Zsuzsanna Jakab, regional director of the WHO for Europe – remains essential to ensure optimal growth and development of the child and better health outcomes in the future, including the prevention of overweight, obesity and non-disease feeding-related transmissible

The WHO has developed a draft nutritional profile model for children aged 6 to 36 months , to guide decisions about which foods are inappropriate for this age group. The model was presented to Member States and interested parties to examine and discuss it. WHO / Europe has also developed a methodology for identifying commercial baby food available in retail environments, and for collecting data on nutritional content indicated on labels and other packaging.

This methodology was used to collect data on 7,955 foods and beverages for babies and children , sold in 516 stores in 4 locations in the WHO European region (Vienna, Sofia, Budapest and Haifa) between November 2017 and January 2018. 4 cities, a substantial part of the products, between 28% and 60%, was marketed as suitable for children under the age of 6 months. Although this is permitted by European law, it does not comply with the WHO International Code on Breastmilk Substitutes and Guidelines . Both explicitly state that complementary foods should not be marketed as suitable for children under the age of 6 months.

” Foods for infants and young children are required to comply with various nutritional and composition recommendations. Nevertheless, there are concerns that many products may still be too rich in sugar,” says João Breda, head of the European Prevention Office and the control of non-communicable diseases of WHO.

In 3 of the cities considered, half or more of the products contain over 30% of the total calories to be taken from sugars . About a third of the products contain sugar, concentrated fruit juice or other sweetening agents. What is more serious is that these added flavors and sugars could influence the development of children’s taste preferences, increasing their liking for sweeter foods.

But should we just blame the food industry for this? Is voluntary action enough or should we have stricter regulations to ensure that the baby-food market follows suit with the rest of the industry on sugar reduction goals? Reducing the sugar content in processed baby foods can help achieve the current advice of reducing the contribution from free sugars in total daily energy intake to 5%.

In the UK, commercial baby foods are bought by at least one-third of parents. Alison Tedstone said on Today in the same interview that Public Health England, where she is chief nutritionist, that she was seeking to engage more players in the sugar reduction programme and that other measurements will follow in 2020. I will be eagerly following this progress, in particular the engagement of the food industry.
Most importantly, we need changes to legislation to make it mandatory for the industry to align to a reformulation programme rather than relying on it to volunteer for one. Additionally, the government should listen to expert groups that recommend increasing the age at which solid food is introduced from four months to six months. Limiting children’s exposure to processed foods from an early age is something we all owe to children. Parents need a more supportive environment to give children a good start in life: less sugar, broader palates and healthier diets.

• The headline on this article was changed on 4 January 2018. A previous headline had implied that babies did not naturally like sweet food which is not the case

• Dr Ada Garcia is a public health nutritionist at the University of Glasgow

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