My break from work came to an end this morning, as I was reminded of a fact: children are eating too much sugar. The new and welcoming part of the story was that the government is launching a campaign in England to help parents choose lower-sugar options for their children.
Wearing my nutritionist’s hat, blaming sugar alone is not the answer to childhood obesity. Still, every action in the fight against obesity does help. Keeping the sugar debate alive opens opportunities for much-needed action in areas that have received little attention. The levy on sugar in Mexico and recently in the UK revealed the results that are possible when there is engagement from governments and the food industry. In the UK, we are just at the beginning of a wider programme that will succeed only if important players such as the infant food industry become actively engaged.
My interest in this began in 2009 when I became a mother and had the responsibility of choosing what to feed my twins. Being a nutritionist gave me a lot of advantages in navigating the baby feeding journey but also made me wonder what choices other parents have. What does the market offer when parents decide not to, or cannot, prepare baby food from scratch? I was so concerned that I decided to refocus my academic research on infant feeding.
It became apparent that there was little information on the ingredients used in the formulation of commercial baby foods in the British market. My studies led me to report that the baby-food market was promoting the development of sweet preferences with the widespread use of sweeter vegetables and fruit, such as carrots and apples, rather than more bitter-tasting green vegetables. I also found that many baby-food companies were adding concentrated fruit juice or pureed fruit to make foods taste sweeter and that on average, dry sweet snacks had 26g of sugar per 100g. The food industry argues that it is using fruit and vegetables, which is true, but the problem is that the moment these fruits and vegetables are mashed and highly processed, the carbohydrates in the cell walls become free sugars.
So I was seriously concerned to hear Tim Rycroft, of the Food and Drink Federation, defend adding sugar to infant food for reasons of “palatability” on the BBC’s Today programme on Wednesday. Making foods sweeter is a good way to ensure that children will choose them over other foods that are less immediately palatable. This, unfortunately, is what happens if babies are not offered less sweet foods. If the baby-food market offers highly processed fruits and other foods of a sweet nature, babies will have less opportunities to become familiar with a wider selection of foods in the future.
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.
• Dr Ada Garcia is a public health nutritionist at the University of Glasgow