By Rachel Kayani
Many baby food products in the UK do not meet the dietary needs of infants according to researchers. In addition, many baby products have a sweet taste which may encourage infants to prefer sweet foods in later life. A study by scientists at the University of Glasgow’s School of Medicine tested 479 shop-bought products, including many of the big well-known brands, and found that most contained fewer nutrients than homemade food, and only as much as the breast milk they were supplementing. Indeed, babies would need to eat twice as much processed baby food to get the same energy levels as they could achieve with meals made from scratch.
During the weaning process (at around 6 months) babies gradually move on from a milk only diet to starting solid foods in order to boost their energy and nutrient intake. This process is also important to introduce babies to a wider range of tastes, textures, and flavours, to encourage them to accept different foods. But lead author of the study, Dr Charlotte Wright, said in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood that weaning foods ‘would not serve the intended purpose of introducing infants to a wide range of new flavours and textures.’
UK experts say weaning should not be started before six months, in line with recommendations for exclusive breastfeeding until that time. However, many baby products are promoted as being suitable from 4 months upwards. Whilst some parents may choose to start weaning at that time the researchers found that the typical calorie content of the spoonable baby foods was 282 kJ per 100g, almost identical to breast milk at 283 kJ per 100g of formula. Meaning commercial baby food products were offering little advantage over formula or breast milk.
Another factor was the sweetness of commercial baby products. Although, many products are sweetened with fruit or fruit sugars, rather than added sugar, the study found around half the products were classified as sweet. Weaning guidelines recommend offering sweet foods only “occasionally or not at all” to set good habits and avoid developing a sweet tooth which can lead to tooth decay. Babies naturally like sweet foods as breast milk is sweet, which might explain why sweet ingredients feature so prominently in commercial products.
The savoury “spoonable” commercial foods generally had much lower nutrient density than home-blended dinners, with the exception of iron content. Whilst commercial rusks and biscuits were found to be more energy-dense, and contained high amounts of iron and calcium, they also tended to be high in sugar, the researchers found.
The authors felt that whilst it is understandable that parents may choose to use commercial foods they should be aware of what is in them – and not be misled by any claims of health benefits. Homemade purees tend to be better in terms of energy and nutritional value and should be included in an infant’s diet. Using a blender, or fork for mashing, batches of food can be made in one go and then frozen in small containers or even ice cube trays ready to use when needed. Commercial jars can be convenient and used as part of an infant’s diet but parents should be aware of the superior nutritional value of home cooked foods.
In response to the study the British Specialist Nutrition Association, which represents baby food manufacturers in the UK, said: “Baby foods are carefully prepared to ensure they provide the right balance of nutrients in appropriate amounts for infants and young children.
“Levels of protein, carbohydrate (including sugars), fat, vitamins and minerals in baby foods are strictly regulated by legislation which is based on advice from European scientific experts. Our member companies comply with the legislation as an absolute minimum. We recommend that commercial baby foods are used as part of a mixed diet which includes homemade foods plus breast milk or formula, which remain the most important source of nutrition for infants under 12 months.”