Three quarters of toddlers are eating too much – because parents are feeding them supposedly “healthy” snacks which are actually no better than sweets.
A Public Health England investigation of more than 1,100 foods aimed at babies and infants warns that some fruit-based products are three-quarters sugar.
Health officials today called for a Government crackdown, warning that parents were being fooled into thinking they were making the right choices for their children, as a result of misleading claims.
Dr Alison Tedstone, PHE’s chief nutritionist, urged parents to limit snacks – and said she “strongly advised” parents to entirely cut out those which are high in sugar.
Its evidence review of foods and drinks available to the under-threes found some foods marketed as healthy snacks are among those with the highest sugar content.
The study found that the market for baby “finger food” – such as dried fruit and oat bars – is rapidly expanding.
Last year more than £100m was spent on such products in the UK – a 66 per cent rise since 2014.
Processed dried fruit products were found to be the highest in sugar, prompting PHE to issue a stark warning that “these should not be marketed as suitable for children to eat between meals.”
Officials said parents are often misled into thinking such foods, along with fruit pouches and purees, are healthy because they boast they are “packed with real fruit” or “one of five a day”.
Such messages act as a “health halo,” the report warns, distracting parents from the high sugar content.
Officials today urged ministers to clamp down on confusing labelling, as they urged parents instead to opt for whole fruit and vegetables.
They warned that 75 per cent of children aged between four and 18 months are eating more calories than they need, fuelling Britain’s obesity crisis.
One in five children are overweight or obese by the time they start primary school – and one in three reaches this stage by the time they leave.
The report warns that manufacturers are attempting to imply that products are an easy way to get children to eat their greens – when products were predominantly made of fruit, which is much more sugary.
It cites the example of a broccoli, pear and peas pouch which contained seven per cent broccoli, and 14 per cent peas and 79 per cent pear.
In many cases, the content of finger foods was no better than sweets or biscuits, the report warns.
“The way products are labelled and marketed is encouraging snacking, by suggesting to parents that these products form an expected and appropriate part of an infant’s diet, when many are biscuits or savoury snacks and others are similar nutritionally to confectionery,” it adds.
One product marketed as “one of five a day” and “packed with real fruit” contained 68 grams of sugar per 100 grams.
Health experts recommend snacks such as fresh fruit, plain yoghurt, carrot sticks and toast fingers.
Dr Tedstone said: “We accept that children snack and they probably need to snack but we absolutely think there should be limits on that. What’s going on at the moment is that there’s been a big expansion in the baby snack food market and lots of those are high-sugar snacks.
“Some of these products have lots of statements saying they are one of your five a day, organic or full of vitamins.
“People can think these are great products that are good for you.
“But we are concerned about the high sugar content of these products and the growth in the market in that area.”
Some products, such as 100 per cent concentrated fruit drops and strips, were as high in sugar as sweets, she added.
“They are basically sweets but they are marketed as being 100 per cent pure and it’s confusing parents,” she said.
“When you eat those products they stick to your teeth – that will cause tooth decay.
“If your child eats an apple, that sugar is pretty diluted in a few slices of fruit.
“But if they eat a concentrated fruit product, the child is getting much more sugar than they would in a few slices of apple.”
The research also found that more than one in four food and drink products reviewed were targeted at four-months old, which contradict official guidelines that babies should not be weaned before six months.
Declan O’Brien – Director General of the British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA), representing baby food companies said: “BSNA members wholeheartedly support measures to improve infant health and have been working with PHE to reformulate the content of products, recognising that they provide a convenient and valuable option for parents in feeding their children as part of a balanced diet for infants.
“Baby food products are already tightly regulated and are tailored to meet the specific needs of young children. At the same time, BSNA member companies are always working to improve their products and labelling. We will continue to work with Public Health England to support a healthy start in life for all infants.”