Apr 04, 2023

Nearly a third of baby foods sold in UK are ultra

Report points to health risks of ultra-processing and calls for regulation to catch up with other countries

Nearly a third of baby and toddler foods sold in the UK are ultra-processed, risking children's long-term health and development, according to research.

The report for First Steps Nutrition Trust found that ultra-processed products dominate the diets of British babies and preschool children.

Analysing previously unpublished UK data from a 2021 pan-European study of levels of processing in infant and toddler food, the report found that while overall 29% of food in the baby aisles of supermarkets is ultra-processed, the proportion rises to half for baby snacks and cereals and to three-quarters for baby biscuits and rusks.

These ultra-processed products are often marketed as healthy or natural options, despite having higher levels of salt, sugar, fat and additives that are associated with obesity, cancer, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, the report found.

By age two to five, UPFs account for nearly two thirds (61%) of calories consumed by UK children – a higher proportion than their peers in the US and Australia.

Dr Chris van Tulleken, the author of Ultra-Processed People, said: "We are in the middle of a child health emergency, with UK children heavier on average than in almost any other country. Ultra-processed foods are strongly associated with weight gain. They also change children's long-term food preferences and have a huge range of harmful effects on their bodies, including malnutrition and stunting: many children in the UK aren't just heavy for their age, they are also short."

The report calls on the government to regulate the composition, labelling and marketing of commercial baby and toddler foods and drinks, as well as to ensure public health recommendations explicitly address food processing, in line with international best practice. National dietary guidance in a number of other countries including Brazil, Israel and France has specific recommendations to reduce UPF consumption among young children.

Some of the foods included in the report were HiPP Organic baby food jar veg and mozzarella potato bake; mPiccolo Organic apple, banana and strawberry yoghurt Melts; Little Dish cottage pie; Ella's Kitchen organic peach and banana melty sticks; and Heinz Splash apple and blackcurrant juice.

Dr Vicky Sibson, the director of First Steps Nutrition Trust, said: "Baby aisles of supermarkets are perceived as safe spaces by parents to buy foods that are suitable for their young children. But companies are misleadingly marketing inappropriate and unnecessary products as ‘natural’ or with ‘no added ingredients’ when actually they are ultra-processed, risking damage to children's long-term health and development.

"The government promised to tackle this misleading labelling and marketing of baby food more than two years ago. If not now, when?"

Dr Eszter Vamos, from Imperial College London's school of public health, said: "This report highlights just how much ultra-processed foods our children are eating from a young age, and it calls for important and urgent actions on ultra-processed foods.

"While we need more research to understand the mechanisms linking UPFs to poor health, the available evidence on the harmful effects of high UPF intakes in children is too strong to ignore.

"Our food systems are currently failing to provide families with healthy diets because they are oriented towards generating profit from selling UPFs, and children are main consumers. We need policies that transform our failing food systems and make healthy foods available, accessible and affordable, and address the aggressive and misleading marketing of UPFs."

The Department of Health and Social Care said: "We have legislation in place which regulates the nutritional, compositional and labelling standards for baby food and this includes ensuring labelling is not misleading for consumers."

It said information for families was available on its weaning hub, and that its restrictions on the location of unhealthy foods in supermarkets reduced the "pester power" of children.

Sign up to First Edition

Archie Bland and Nimo Omer take you through the top stories and what they mean, free every weekday morning

after newsletter promotion

The British Specialist Nutrition Association, which represents the manufacturers of many of the products, said: "BSNA members are committed to making nutritious products and marketing them in a responsible way, recognising that they are a valued option for parents and carers of young children.

"Foods and drinks specifically created for infants and young children are highly regulated and are required to adhere to strict safety and nutritional standards. These processing techniques are essential in ensuring products are safe and nutritionally appropriate for the specific needs of infants and young children."

Ultra-processed food involves extremely high levels of manufacturing to produce. It includes all formula milk, many commercially produced baby and toddler foods, fizzy drinks and sweets, fast food, snacks, biscuits and cakes, as well as mass-produced bread and breakfast cereals, ready meals and desserts.

Ultra-processed ingredients include fruit juice concentrates, maltodextrin, dextrose, golden syrup, hydrogenated oils, soya protein isolate, gluten, "mechanically separated meat", organic dried egg whites, as well as rice and potato starch and corn fibre. Additives such as monosodium glutamate, colourings, thickeners and glazing agents are also ultra-processed.

Ultra-processed food contains higher levels of salt, sugar, fat and additives that are associated with obesity, cancer, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They also tend to have lower levels of protein, zinc, magnesium, vitamins A, C, D, E, B12 and niacin necessary for a child's optimal growth and development. It is also thought that other mechanisms are at play in UPFs being associated with worse health outcomes, including negative effects on the development of gut microbiota.

This article was amended on 8 June 2023 to correct the spelling of Chris van Tulleken's surname.

Privacy Notice: