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Baby-food pouches may pose risks for development, health when overused


CLEVELAND, Ohio—Baby-food pouches have become wildly popular among parents. They’re portable, don’t need to be refrigerated, can be sucked down without a spoon and don’t leave a mess on hands and faces.

But experts warn that if parents use them exclusively or too often they can interfere with a child’s developing motor skills and speech, and potentially lead to other problems in the future.

“The problem comes in when kids are only using pouches,” said Annelise Johnson, the feeding and swallowing disorders team leader at Akron Children’s Hospital. Like most other things in life, moderation is key, she said.

Johnson and other experts at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital and Cleveland Clinic Children’s weighed in on how best to use the super-convenient pouches, the risks posed by overuse, and whether it makes sense to skip pureed foods entirely.

What’s a baby-food pouch and when did they become so popular?

Plastic, squeezable pouches filled with just about every imaginable combination of pureed baby food hit the market about a decade ago and have been growing in market share since. In many grocery stores, the pouches outnumber in both quantity and variety more traditional offerings packaged in glass jars.

The pouches are available in organic varieties and in flavor combinations as diverse as carrot-chickpea-pea-beef- and-tomato to the more traditional apple-and-banana.


Food pouches are a convenient and portable meal for babies and toddlers, and come in a wide variety of flavor combinations. If the pouches are used exclusively or excessively during the time when babies are learning to eat solid foods, though, they can pose risks to both health and development.  Lynn Ischay

“They’re super popular among parents right now,” said Jenae Brewer, a clinical speech pathologist at Cleveland Clinic Children’s. “They’re very convenient and they have a lot of unique foods in them that kids aren’t necessarily exposed to with regular baby food, like quinoa and kale.”

Isn’t it a good thing to introduce a baby to a wide variety of different, healthy foods?

Absolutely, say the experts, variety is good. The potential problem with introducing foods in a baby-food pouch is that the foods are usually mixed together, and vegetables often are paired with sweeter, less expensive fillers such as apple, pear and carrots.

“One of the big pros about the pouches is that they do contain a good variety of fruits and vegetables,” and kids with feeding problems tend to lack these in their diet, said Evelyn Koski, a registered pediatric dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Children’s. But, she said, “they are often higher in calories and sugar and lower in fiber than giving them the whole fruit or vegetable.”

And when the food is all mixed up, kids can’t differentiate the individual tastes and textures.

The experts also recommend introducing new foods to babies individually, at least at first, so that if the child has an allergy or sensitivity to the food, it’s easier to figure out what’s causing it.

“We want kids to get a taste for all kinds of different foods,” said Johnson of Akron Children’s. The old thinking that you have to introduce vegetables first is a myth, she said, but it is important for babies to see, smell and taste lots of different things in order to develop their palate.

Why does it matter how a baby eats his food, as long as it’s healthy?

For babies and toddlers, eating isn’t simply about nutrition and survival. It’s a learning experience that contributes to the development of fine motor skills, the ability to chew and swallow, and to speak.

“Learning how to eat from a spoon is very different than learning to suck out of a pouch,” Johnson said, and involves closing the mouth over the spoon, making a cup with the tongue, and swallowing.

Skipping or significantly delaying feeding skills like using a spoon can lead to chewing, swallowing and speech issues down the line, she said.

There’s also some concern that when babies and toddlers are only exposed to sweetened versions of vegetables in pouches, they may have a hard time accepting plain vegetables later.

When the baby is only eating out of the pouch, she said, “kids don’t get a chance to see the food, smell the food, touch the food and get that big sensory experience…Eventually when you’re expected to eat a piece of zucchini it’s going to be a big shock to your system.”

What about skipping purees altogether, a technique called “baby-led” feeding?

Baby-led feeding or baby-led weaning is a feeding technique for introducing solid foods that advocates skipping purees and mashed foods altogether and introducing finger foods instead.

Babies are old enough to start eating solids when they can reliably sit up on their own, usually between five and seven months old.

The idea behind baby-led feeding is that it promotes the development of motor skills by encouraging babies to pick up and put foods in their mouths at an earlier age, establishes the baby’s control over what and how much to eat, and may reduce picky eating later. Most families simply offer their baby small pieces of the same foods the family is eating for dinner.

But while eschewing purees can be perfectly fine for some babies, experts caution that others may not be ready for this type of feeding and may risk choking.

“Most 6-month-olds are going to have a hard time with food that’s not relatively soft,” said Dr. Aparna Bole, division chief of general academic pediatrics & adolescent medicine and medical director of the Rainbow Ambulatory Practice at UH Rainbow Babies. “You’re not going to be able to give them a hard piece of finger food and be able to grab and self-feed.”

There’s also no evidence that feeding purees off a spoon in any way limits a baby’s palate or willingness to try different foods later on, said Bole.

Young babies may also not have yet built up the mouth muscle stamina to be able to eat an entire meal of table foods, said the Clinic’s Brewer. “So we still need to use those smooth foods like pouches or jars as supplementation so that they can get sufficient calories in.”

Feeding babies and toddlers some of the table foods the rest of the family is eating can be a good thing because it helps establish meal time as a social event for the whole family, rather than establishing a pattern of providing separate meals to kids and parents, said Bole.

What about the environmental impact of single-use baby food pouches?

“From the standpoint of production and shipping, they take less energy to produce and ship than heavier baby food jars,” said Bole. But the pouches fail miserably on the plastic waste front because they are not recyclable, said Bole.

“There’s also some concern about leaching of plastic material into the food,” she said.

If you’re worried about the ecological impact of your baby’s food, or what might or might not be in it, you might consider buying reusable pouches and filling them with homemade purees, the experts said.

What’s the bottom line on pouches?

All the experts agree that pouches can be a good addition to a healthy diet as long as babies and toddlers are also getting food off a spoon and eventually trying and eating finger foods, too.

Brewer recommends that families that use pouches feed the pureed contents using a spoon, or empty the pouch into a bowl. “So it’s essentially the same thing as eating out of a jar.”

Experts also caution against giving toddlers food, including pouches, to eat away from the table or while walking around. Not only does it increase the risk of choking, but it also establishes a habit of eating while distracted.



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