Baby food pouches – in rainbow colours and animal shapes – are hard to miss on supermarket shelves. Yet despite their friendly appearance, the purees of trusted nutrients for infants have attracted the ire of dentists.
The profession has claimed that plenty of baby food has more sugar than Coca-Cola, as it warned about an “epidemic” of tooth decay among young children.
“These products sadly risk hooking the next generation before they can even walk,” declared Eddie Crouch, the chairman of the British Dental Association (BDA), in a report.
In an analysis of 109 pouches aimed at children under 12 months old, the BDA found more than a quarter contained more sugar by volume than a can of Coca-Cola. It added that fruit-based pouches marketed for infants as young as four months contained 1.5 times as much sugar per 100g as the soft drink.
Those marketing themselves as more upmarket could be the worst culprits. “Boutique” brands Ella’s Kitchen and Annabel Karmel were namechecked by the BDA for appearing to have higher levels of sugar than traditional baby food brands or own-brand alternatives.
The criticism has cast a shadow over a burgeoning industry, increasingly built on wholesome promises.
Although large players such as Danone, Kraft Heinz and Nestlé dominate the market, fledgling brands – often described as organic or gourmet – have soared in popularity in recent years, promising millions of middle class parents a healthy, ethically sourced way of feeding their children.
According to the BDA, such products contained high levels of sugar even though many boasted of containing only “naturally occurring sugars” or “no added sugar”. Others claim to be “nutritionally approved” or in line with the “nutritional and developmental needs” of infants.
It described this as “halo” labelling, where brands say they are “organic”, “high in fibre” or contain “one of your five a day”. This type of marketing, the BDA said, could mislead parents into thinking they were making healthy choices for their children’s nutrition.
The BDA said infants often sucked directly from the pouches, meaning the food spends more time in contact with baby teeth and increases the risk of decay.
One industry source says: “Sugar is cheap. It costs more to use fruit and vegetables that have less natural sugar, such as blueberries. There’s something to do with [keeping] costs [down] here.”
Concerns come as the UK baby food market is only set to grow. Worth $1bn (£800m) in 2021, it is on a growth path between now and 2027, according to forecasts from GlobalData.
The baby finger food category, such as the pouches, is anticipated to grow the fastest by volume. Baby milks remained the largest category in value terms, followed by baby wet meals and baby finger foods.
As the sector booms, the brands have reaped the profits. Ella’s Kitchen was founded by Paul Lindley in 2006, who named it after his daughter. In 2014 it had a turnover of more than $100m and was subsequently bought by US-based food group Hain Celestial in 2013 for an undisclosed sum. Lindley left the company to focus on campaigning.