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Do processed baby foods 'lack nutritional value'?

“Home-made baby meals better than shop food”, The Times reports.

The Times’ headline accurately reflects a widely reported UK study describing the nutritional content of commercially available infant foods in the UK.

Based on manufacturers’ information, the researchers compared the foods with breast milk, formula milk and examples of home-made weaning foods commonly given to infants, such as banana or stewed apple.

Savoury ready-made “spoonable” foods were generally found to have much lower nutrient density than the sorts of home-made foods that might be given to an infant aged 6 to 12 months.

The received wisdom is that solid foods help a baby grow and develop because they are more energy dense than breast milk. However, the researchers said that the majority of products had energy content similar to breast milk, which means that the products would not be able to enhance the nutrient density of infant diets.

While ready-made foods provide parents with much needed convenience, they come at a cost, both financial, and from this research, that cost is also likely to be a lower nutritional value.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Glasgow. Sources of funding were not reported, but the authors say they had no competing interests. The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Archives of Disease in Childhood.

The story was picked up by most of the UK media. Some had attention-grabbing headlines that focused on the “potential harm” these commercially available foods pose to infants.

However, the research did not look at harm to children, so these headlines do not accurately reflect what the research was about. The research simply goes some way towards confirming what many parents already suspect – food that you’ve prepared yourself is more likely to be nutritious than a processed, packaged, shop-bought version.

Reassuringly, once past the headlines, most of the media reported the study appropriately.

What kind of research was this?

This was a cross-sectional study that described the types of commercially available infant foods in the UK during 2010 and 2011. The study also described the nutritional value of these products and compared them with examples of home-made foods common in the UK, such as banana, mashed potato and stewed apple.

Because this type of study is only performed at a given point in time, findings from a different point in time may provide different results. This should be taken into account when interpreting results from this type of study. However, the nutritional content of products is not prone to frequent changes.

What did the research involve?

The researchers identified the four main UK manufacturers of infant foods during the period October 2010 to February 2011 through sales figures from previously conducted market research. The four companies, along with the number of products they had, were:

  • Heinz (103 products)
  • Cow & Gate (115 products)
  • HiPP Organic (115 products)
  • Boots (50 products)

They also identified two smaller organisations that produced organic foods:

  • Ella’s Kitchen (38 products)
  • Organix (58 products)

Products included ready-made soft and wet foods as well as dry foods that can be reconstituted with either milk or water, such as cereals, rusks, raisins, cakes and biscuits. Drinks, smoothies and milks were excluded from the analysis.

Nutritional information for each product was collected from manufacturers’ websites, direct email enquiry with the manufacturer, or from the products in-store (Boots products only).

The researchers collected information about the product name, recommended age and the type of liquid used for dilution (milk or water for dry products) as well as specific nutritional content, including:

  • energy (kJ or kcal)
  • protein (g)
  • carbohydrate (g)
  • fat (g)
  • sugar (g)
  • salt
  • iron (mg)
  • calcium (mg)

Using this information, products were classified as either sweet or savoury (“taste”) and put into four main food types (“texture”):

  • ready-made
  • breakfast cereals
  • powdered meals that need to be reconstituted with water or milk
  • dry finger foods, such as rusks

All nutritional analysis was per 100g of product. The products were compared to the typical nutritional value of breast milk and the average for baby formula milks.

Ready-made products were also compared to the nutritional content of examples of home-made food commonly given by parents to infants and toddlers in the UK, such as mashed potato chicken, stewed apple and vegetarian meals.

Cereals and dried products needing reconstitution were excluded from the nutritional content analysis because of the difficulty in defining the nutritional values.

What were the basic results?

The researchers analysed 462 products. Of these, 364 were ready-made products (mostly baby jars or sachets) and 45 were dry finger foods, such as rusks or raisins.

Nearly half of the products (44%) were targeted at infants who were four months or older and 65% of foods in this category were classified as sweet.

Other findings included:

  • Savoury ready-made “spoonable” foods generally had much lower nutrient density than the sorts of family food that might be given to an infant aged 6 to 12 months, with the exception of iron content. The researchers say that around 50g of a soft “spoonable” family food might have the same amount of energy and protein as 100g of ready-made “spoonable” food.
  • The average energy content of ready-made “spoonable foods” was 282kJ/100g, which was similar to the energy content of breast milk (283kJ/100g) and formula milk (281kJ/100g).
  • Ready-made “spoonable” sweet foods had similar energy density to home-cooked sweet family food but had lower protein levels.
  • Commercially available rusks and biscuits were on average more energy dense and contained high amounts of iron and calcium, but also tended to be high in sugar.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded that the UK infant food market mainly supplies sweet, soft, “spoonable” foods targeted at children aged from four months.

They say the majority of products had energy content similar to breast milk and would therefore not serve the intended purpose of enhancing the nutrient density and diversity of taste and texture in infants’ diets.

Conclusion

Overall, this study provides some useful information about the types of commercially available products in the UK during 2010 and 2011. It offers some basic nutritional content of these products and compares them with breast milk, formula milk and some examples of common home-made UK foods.

The main limitation of this study was that nutritional information relied on what was reported on manufacturers’ websites, which may not accurately reflect actual nutritional content.

There are also some other limitations to this study, including:

  • The researchers say that given the large number of products made, it is not possible to record the exact ingredient for each food, so the classification of food types relied on the name of the products.
  • Despite categorising foods by taste (sweet or savoury) and texture (dry, wet, ready-made), actual taste and texture was not assessed.
  • Only a select number of example foods commonly given to children in the UK were included – these foods may not reflect foods commonly given to all children in the UK.

Read more about when to start introducing solids foods.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Exactly what everyone thought the conclusion would be and what every mum knows, home cooked food is best.

    Next they will be telling us that fizzy drinks, crisps and sweets aren't as nutritious as fruit as a snack.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

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