Some sweet advice about baby food

Ella’s Kitchen in the headlines

by Jess English, Family & Schools Dietitian

Organic baby food and snack producer Ella’s Kitchen has hit the news in the last few months following on from a Channel 4 television show ‘Super Shoppers’.

The programme focused on the amount of sugar contained in Ella’s Kitchen products; in some cases up to five teaspoons amount per pouch – that’s the same as in a cake like a Mr Kipling ‘French Fancy’.

New UK Government sugar guidelines recommend no more than 17g per day for children aged four years old and less for those under four years old. Children don’t need added sugars in their diet at all – they can get all of their energy from nutrient-dense foods.

Childhood is a time when we experience new tastes and it’s a great opportunity to get children used to having less sugar and getting used to the real flavours of fruits and vegetables.

The added sugars present in foods that appear healthy can sometimes be misleading and can add up quickly over the day so it’s best to be informed about what is in the food you’re buying.

It’s not just Ella’s Kitchen that market sugar-laden foods to children – Fruit Flakes, Innocent Smoothie pouches and many others contain high amounts of sugar. Heinz is also facing legal action in Australia regarding the labelling of the sugar content of its children’s foods.

One of Ella’s pouches (20g of sugar); an Innocent smoothie pouch (18g sugar / pouch) and a bowl of Coco Pops (9g) would be 47g in a day. That’s almost 3 days’ worth of maximum recommended sugar intake for a 4 year old in just one day.

The same as homemade?

Ella’s Kitchen has responded to the programme by saying their baby foods are made with only pureed fruit – never from fruit juice concentrate. Ella’s Kitchen say their baby food ‘contains the same amount of sugar as if you’d made it at home using fruit from the fruit bowl’.

Recent research by the University of Southern California has shown that the actual sugar content found in manufactured baby foods can vary widely – in some cases containing up to 337% more than stated on the packet.

How labels are worked out

The nutritional breakdown on food labels are usually calculated by analysing the ingredients used to make the foods – not the final product. This means the sugar content on the label can differ from the contents of the packet – after the foods have been heavily blended and heat treated.

When foods are heavily blended and heat treated the sugars in the fruit and vegetables are removed from the plant cell walls and can become mostly ‘free’ sugars. These ‘free’ sugars act the same as regular table sugar; they are released quickly into our blood and aren’t great for our teeth.

The sugars in foods we prepare at home by mashing and mixing are more likely to remain in the plant cell walls – compared with the much higher levels of processing and heat treating that many pre-packaged foods go through.

So a small bowl of porridge made with milk and adding chopped or mashed banana is not the same as eating a manufactured pouch of blended banana porridge.

But that’s fruit sugar, so that’s okay – right?

What’s the difference? The short answer is – not much.

Fruit sugar, coconut sugar, palm sugar – they are all names for ‘free’ (added) sugars and the same goes for heat-treated, processed fruit or vegetable purees. They are not ‘healthier’ than regular table sugar; our bodies will process these sugars in the same way.

When we eat whole fruits or vegetables, not only do we get the added benefits of fibre from these foods but this fibre also helps slow the digestion of the sugars in the foods, important for regulating our blood sugar levels.

Fruit juices and concentrates are classed as ‘free sugars’ for the reasons mentioned earlier – they have been released from the structure of the plant. Due to this high sugar content, one 150ml serving of fruit juice or smoothie will only ever count as one of your five a day.

This concentrated form of sugar is also bad for our teeth – dentists have discouraged drinking juice out of a bottle for many years and there are now fresh concerns about eating these fruity pouches from their screw tops.

Why so sweet?

Apple and other fruit purees are a cheap, bulk ingredient used to add sweetness in many baby products. We’re ‘programmed’ to like sweet things from an early age (even breast milk is sweet) and so most babies will like it.

Bitter flavours from green vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower may take a bit more getting used to and most children are less likely to enjoy these flavours at first.

This is why it’s so important to introduce your children to a wide range of flavours from an early age – we know increasing exposure to these foods will increase the likelihood of babies taking to them.

What can I do about it?

The good news is you don’t have to buy pre-packaged baby foods – specially marketed baby foods have only been around since about the 1950s. Until then babies just ate the same food as adults.

Guess what? Babies and young children can still eat the same foods as adults. Making your own foods or chopping up adult size servings of things like plain rice cakes can be cheaper, potentially better for the environment (as doing this should reduce plastic packaging) and with a bit of planning around your own meal times, it needn’t take more time.

The takeaway
    • If you want to know what’s in the packet, practice your label reading skills (see below for more info)
    • Try swapping out fruit juices and smoothies in favour of eating whole fruits and vegetables
    • Although it may be convenient at times, babies don’t need special baby food – have a look at the websites listed below for some great ideas for kids’ lunchboxes and snacks and ways to reduce your sugar intake.

If you do still want the convenience of pre-packaged baby foods but want to know what’s inside – practice your label reading skills. Check out the NHS label reading page to find out more or download the free Change4Life Sugar Smart  App app to scan as you shop – kids love using this too.

Further info:

First Steps Nutrition Trust

First Steps Nutrition Trust: Baby foods in the UK

Caroline Walker Trust – eating well for early years

Fussy eating blog

Share this:

You may also be interested in: