UK dentists call for sweeping action on ‘as sugary as Cola’ baby pouches

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Maria Argutinskaya
Image: Getty/Maria Argutinskaya

Related tags: Baby food, Food for kids, Infant, Infant formula

The British Dental Association has warned that what it calls ‘obscene’ levels of sugar in popular baby food pouches underline the need for wide-ranging government action across the early years’ food and drink sector.

Despite widespread claims of ‘no added sugar’ in these products, dentists have stressed there’s little to no difference for teeth if the sugar is added or naturally occurring.

Market analysis by the British Dental Association of 109 pouches aimed at children aged under 12 months indicated over a quarter contained more sugar by volume than Coca Cola, with parents of infants as young as 4 months marketed pouches that contain the equivalent of up to 150% the sugar levels of the soft drink. Those pouches are without exception fruit-based mixes.   

‘Boutique’ brands have higher levels of sugar than traditional baby food brands or own brand alternatives, with market leaders Ella’s Kitchen and Annabel Karmel coming in for criticism.

While high levels of ‘natural’ sugar have been described by manufacturers as inevitable with fruit-based pouches, some brands offer products based on similar ingredients that contain around half the levels of sugar of the worst offenders, the BNA claimed.

Some products examined aimed at 4 months+ contained up to two thirds of an adult’s recommended daily allowance (RDA) of sugar. Neither the World Health Organisation (WHO) nor the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) cite an RDA for children, simply stressing that as little should be consumed as possible.  

Over two thirds of the products examined exceeded the 5g of sugar per 100ml threshold set for the sugar levy applied to drinks. Dentists stress expansion of fiscal measures would likely have favourable outcomes in terms of encouraging reformulation.  

Pouches have surged in popularity among parents, owing to their convenience. But beyond encouraging a preference for sweet tastes, the BDA warned they also carry oral health risks when compared to foods available via jars. Contents are often sucked directly from the pouch, ensuring the food spends more time in contact with baby teeth, just as they are erupting, and putting teeth at risk of erosion and decay.

Tooth decay is the number one reason for hospital admissions among young children, said BNA. The SACN has also warned infant feeding practices and delayed or poor dental hygiene may be associated with decay prevalence and have recommended a preventive focus on both areas.
Oral health inequality is now set to widen as a result of the pandemic, warned the BDA, owing to ongoing disruption to routine care, the suspension of public health programmes, and the impact of sugar-rich ‘lockdown diets’.

The Department of Health and Social Care is expected to consult imminently on the marketing and labelling of infant foods. Dentist leaders said the excessive levels of sugar in many of these products clearly warrants government action across the sector, including confronting the tactics used by sales teams, implementation of a clearer ‘traffic light’ style for labelling, and potentially expansion of fiscal measures such as the Sugar Levy to encourage reformulation.  

British Dental Association Chair Eddie Crouch said: “Disingenuous marketeers are giving parents the impression they are making a healthy choice with these pouches. Nothing could be further from the truth.  

“Claims of ‘no added sugar’ are meaningless when mums and dads end up delivering the lion’s share of a can of Coke to their infants.  

“Tooth decay is the number one reason for hospital admissions among young children, and sugar is driving this epidemic. These products sadly risk hooking the next generation before they can even walk.

“Ministers need to break the UK’s addiction. They must ensure sugar becomes the new tobacco, especially when it comes to our youngest patients.”​  

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