Baby food from shops half as nutritious as homemade meals, study finds
Press Association/the Guardian
Tuesday 10 September 2013
Baby food from shops half as nutritious as homemade meals, study finds Manufactured baby foods contain high levels of sugar and are promoted for use when infants should be on milk, scientists say
A baby being fed a homemade meal, starting with cereals, vegetables and fruits, will need half as much as being weaned on ready-made food.
Baby foods made by firms including Cow & Gate, Heinz and Ella's Kitchen have far fewer nutrients than homemade meals, according to a new study.
Many contain high levels of sugar and some are promoted for use from four months of age – a time when babies should still be on a diet of breast or formula milk.
Babies would need to eat twice as much shop-bought food to get the same energy and protein as meals cooked at home, researchers found.
The study, from the department of human nutrition at the University of Glasgow, said many weaning foods "would not serve the intended purpose" of giving a baby extra nutrients or a range of tastes and textures.
Guidelines encourage weaning after six months of age, with babies fed only breast or formula milk before this time. But some parents choose to wean early and baby foods are often marked as "suitable from four months".
Experts analysed all the baby foods produced by the main UK manufacturers. These were Cow & Gate, Heinz, Boots, Hipp Organic, Ella's Kitchen and Organix.
Products included ready-made soft foods and dry foods such as cereal that could be made up with milk or water, biscuits, rusks, bars, snacks and cakes.
Nutritional information for each product – such as calories, fat, iron and calcium – were collected from manufacturers' websites, the products themselves and from email enquiries.
Of the 479 items, 364 (79%) were ready-made foods to be fed to the child with a spoon, and 201 (44%) were aimed at infants from four months. Some 65% of the products were sweet foods.
The researchers said the typical calorie content of the spoonable foods was 282kJ (67 calories) per 100g, almost identical to formula milk at 283kJ per 100g of formula.
But purees and spoonable foods made at home were "more nutrient dense" than the shop-bought foods. Examples of homemade foods included chicken stew, beef with mash, stewed apple with custard, and apple with rice pudding.
And while commercial finger foods contained more calories, they had a "very high" sugar content.
The iron content of most of the foods was also lower than that found in formula.
Writing in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, the researchers said: "The UK infant food market mainly supplies sweet, soft, spoonable foods targeted from age four months.
"Most products are ready-made spoonable foods that are no more energy dense than formula milk, and are generally much less nutrient dense than homemade foods.
"This meant that around 50g of a soft spoonable family food might supply the same amount of energy and protein as 100g of ready-made spoonable food."
The Department of Health recommends a gradual transition to solids starting with cereals, vegetables and fruits, before moving on to proteins.
It recommends that breastfeeding babies continues, or they are given 500ml (or about a pint) of formula a day, while they are being weaned, up to their first birthday.
The experts said many shop-bought foods are sweet, possibly to cater for babies' inherent preference for sweet foods.
"However, repeated exposure to foods during infancy promotes acceptance and preferences."
While shop-bought foods use fruit sugars to sweeten foods rather than added sugars, both probably contribute to tooth decay in equal measure, the experts added.
A statement from Heinz said: "Generations of parents have trusted Heinz baby foods as safe and nourishing and which are specially prepared to meet babies nutritional needs with recipes that provide the right tastes and textures."
A statement from Organix said it did not add vitamins and minerals to foods due to organic production rules.
"An exception to these rules is where there are general food industry laws and regulations that supersede any Organic rules.
"For example, thiamin or vitamin B1 is required by law to be added to any weaning foods that are cereal-based, to provide enough of this important vitamin for infants.
"This plays a vital role in the development of a healthy nervous system and is needed for energy release, digestion and growth."
Nobody was available for comment from Hipp Organic.
Helen Messenger, a spokeswoman for Cow & Gate, said: "Our foods offer good-quality nutrition tailored to meet babies' needs and must comply with strict legal standards.
"We recommend that our baby foods are used as part of a mixed diet, which includes homemade foods plus breastmilk or formula, which remains the most important source of nutrition for infants under 12 months.
"The latest government data shows that most babies in the UK are getting the nutrients they need from their weaning diets and that there are no significant shortfalls."
Rosemary Dodds, senior adviser at the National Childbirth Trust, said: "Manufacturers have been dragging their feet, lagging behind current thinking and research evidence that babies don't generally need solid foods before about six months.
"It's time they stopped labelling foods 'from 4 months'.
"If babies are spoon-fed pureed fruit and vegetables before this time, it can replace the nutrients from milk.
"Many parents do find jars of food convenient when they are out and about, but babies can eat family foods most of the time. Buying commercial baby foods is also much more expensive than using family foods."