“National disgrace”: UK pediatrics fed up with distressing levels of sugar and salt in baby foods
Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health demands mandatory guidelines
02 Jan 2023 --- The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) is urging the UK government to finally implement mandatory guidelines on the amount of sugar and salt that baby food can contain amid reports of alarming amounts in everyday products.
In 2016, the government challenged the food industry to reduce the overall sugar content of certain food categories by 20% by 2020, but baby and toddler foods were not included in this program. Instead, it released draft commercial baby food and drink guidelines for consultation in 2020, which “have not been seen since,” the RCPCH says.
“It’s a national disgrace that there is currently zero guidance on the salt and sugar levels in products aimed at infants, who are in a critical stage of their development. All pediatricians know that good nutrition is the foundation of good health and well-being and that this foundation starts being built from infancy,” laments Dr. Camilla Kingdon, president at RCPCH.
“Families also know this and want the best for their children, but the task of providing a healthy and balanced diet is not always an easy one, especially these days with the price of food sky high,” she continues.
To cite an example of the sugar and salt content currently present in baby foods, the British Dental Association (BDA) examined 109 baby food products (sweet and savory) positioned for infants under 12 months. The research was conducted in May-June 2022.
The findings show that many baby food pouches contain more sugar by volume than Coca-Cola. Further yet, some products contain up to two-thirds of an adult’s recommended daily allowance of sugar despite World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations that infants should have minimal to no sugars in their diet.
Rotten stats on tooth decay and obesity
According to the RCPCH, one in three children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school. Children living in the most deprived areas are twice as likely to be living with obesity than those living in the least disadvantaged areas.
The BDA recommends nutritional education alongside government leadership and regulations to help solve the problem.
“Tooth decay is the number one reason for hospital admissions among young children. Yet ministers are letting parents be duped into buying foods that can hook their kids to sugar from infancy,” stressed Eddie Crouch, chair of the BDA.
“Without action here, the food industry will continue touting products more sugary than cola as healthy options.”
Baby food in need of drastic overhaul
The RCPCH based its appeal on the commercial baby food and drink guidelines for consultation set out in 2020.
The UK government challenged the food industry in 2016 to reduce the sugar content of certain food categories by 20% by 2020. However, baby and toddler foods were not included in that program. Instead, the government released draft commercial baby food and drink guidelines for consultation in 2020, which have not been touched since.
Currently, there are no limits on how much sugar and salt baby food products can contain. In addition, there are reports of high levels of obesity and tooth decay in the UK, according to the RCPCH.
“In my own practice, I see parents of very small and vulnerable babies buy baby food pouches and pots with the assumption that they are giving their children the best start they can. The marketing strategies used on these parents are highly effective, with buzzwords such as ‘all organic,’ ‘natural sugars,’ and ‘nutritionally approved,’” says Kingdon.
“At best, this is disingenuous – at worst dangerous.”
The increase in obesity has already led to more cases of type 2 diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure in children. The impact of nutrition on oral health is also significant, with tooth decay as the most common reason for hospital admission among children aged five to nine in the last four years.
Without clear guidance and regulation, baby and infant food products are currently placing the health of future generations at risk, the RCPCH warns.
Regulatory changes needed
According to the UK government’s official report for 2015-2022, its voluntary sugar reduction program failed to deliver substantial industry progress.
In December 2022, organizations such as Action on Sugar and Action on Salt called on the private sector to accelerate its sugar reduction efforts while questioning the effectiveness of a voluntary program rather than regulatory implementations.
“Food is such an important part of our lives and plays a huge role in both culture and identity. There isn’t just one diet that’s the perfect diet that we want everyone to have,” Kingdon continues.
“Instead, we want to give people the option to have a healthy balanced diet that is also achievable and accessible within their individual environments. But we cannot rely on the food industry to provide infants with good nutrition without adequate regulation in place.”
Claims on baby food packaging are largely unregulated, using “healthy halo” connotations that may confuse parents and lead to negative long-term implications, a UK study revealed.
Meanwhile, Kerry launched a digital tool designed to support manufacturers in optimizing the nutritional profile of products to address a changing global regulatory landscape for F&B players.
By Inga de Jong
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