As Action on Sugar warns many ‘healthy’ baby snacks contain concerning amounts of sugar, experts explain why sugar isn’t good for young children.
Babies and children love sweet food (don’t we all?), but although parents want to please their children, giving them sugary things to eat is not a good idea.
New research issued to mark Sugar Awareness Week (November 8-14), has found that even mums and dads who have the best of intentions may be unwittingly feeding their children shop-bought so-called ‘healthy’ baby snacks that contain an unnecessary two teaspoons of sugar per serving.
Action on Sugar (AoS, actiononsugar.org), analysed 73 baby and toddler snacks – such as biscuits, rusks, oat bars and puffs – and found that, although they featured “healthy sounding” claims on their packaging, more than a third (37%) could receive a red traffic-light label for sugar content.
AoS says the worst offenders include Heinz Farley’s Rusks and Kiddylicious, and in a poll of parents with young children, found 84% buy supposedly ‘healthy’ baby and toddler sweet snacks for their children, with 60% saying a ‘no added sugar’ claim would be why they’d choose a product, and nearly all (92%) saying they were more inclined to buy products containing ‘natural sources’ of sugars like fruit.
AoS explains that while naturally-occurring sugars found in whole fruit, vegetables and milk-based products aren’t considered harmful for health, they still contain calories and may be confused with free sugars (added sugars), which can include fruit juice concentrates and mashed or processed dried fruit. Nutritionist Katharine Jenner, campaign director at AoS, says: “Snacks made with processed fruits aren’t clearly stated as sugars in ingredients, despite contributing to total free sugars, so parents don’t realise they’re buying sugary options.”
But why should babies and young children avoid sugar? After all, research shows they’re programmed to like sweet food. Here’s what the experts say…
Babies just don’t need sugar
The NHS warns: “Your baby does not need sugar” and paediatric dietitian Lucy Upton (thechildrensdietitian.co.uk) says consuming sugars means they could miss out on other nutrients, warning:
“It’s recommended that babies and young children six months to two years of age generally avoid any added or free sugars for multiple reasons, from a health and development perspective.
“There’s potential for increased energy intake, and crucially for children this risks displacement of other nutrients they require for health and development.”
Sugars cause tooth decay
AoS warns baby and toddler foods are often high in free sugars which can lead to tooth decay.
“Tooth decay is very painful, and setting the child up for a taste for sweet foods could easily track through life,” says Jenner. “Snacking on sweet foods at any age contributes to poor oral health – both the type of food and drink and the frequency of exposure to free sugars affect the health of teeth.”
Babies don’t need snacks, especially sugary ones
“Babies under 12 months old do not need snacks at all, but ‘mini-meals’ to complement their milk-based diets. Yet there’s a growing market of snack products aimed at babies aged six months and over, which [can] state on the pack that they are suitable for babies aged 6+ months. This age criterion is often mistaken as a dietary requirement, when in fact it relates to food safety.”
Eating sugar as a baby can give children a sweet tooth
Food preferences and behaviours are formed during childhood, and can directly impact later health, warns Jenner.
“Poor diet in childhood can lead to adolescent health issues such as obesity, likely to remain into adulthood,” she says.
And Upton explains it’s crucial for babies and young children to have a wide experience of tastes and textures.
“Sweet food will always be easily and well accepted, so it’s important children have a variety of other tastes and food experiences,” she says.
Too much sugar can lead to weight gain which can remain into adulthood
Eating too much sugar regularly means the body stores the extra calories as fat. Professor Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of AoS warns:
“This can lead to weight gain, and if this happens to our children, it’s likely they will carry the weight into their adolescent and adult years, potentially leading to overweight or obesity.”
Beware misleading packaging
AoS is calling for the removal of misleading nutrition and health claims on-snack packs, especially around ‘no added sugar/refined sugar’ when such ingredients are replaced by fruit concentrates. These are still a type of free sugars and should be limited, it says.
“Product packaging is often coupled with health messages that put parents’ minds at rest, distracting them from seeing the high hidden sugars content,” warns Jenner, who also stresses: “Baby foods have the potential to make life easier for stressed parents and support the needs of the growing baby. But they must do just that: support the growth of the baby, not put their future health at risk, and the parents must have the information to know what they’re buying.”