A well-intentioned call for baby food manufacturers to ditch added sugars should place more responsibility on parents.
When a spokesman for the Food and Drink Federation, Tim Rycroft, stated last week that baby food manufacturers add sugar to improve "palatability," there was outrage from the public. Dr. Robert Lustig tweeted, "The food industry puts the sugar in because the kids love it! And that's exactly why it has to come out!" Nutritionist Ada Garcia wrote, "Making foods sweeter is a good way to ensure that children will choose them over other foods that are less immediately palatable."
Rycroft's statement may be infuriating, but why is anyone surprised? Welcome to the real world, where marketers will always try to convince us that a manufactured product is the best. Baby food is no different from everything else. Babies love sugar and they're more willing to eat new foods that taste sweet on their tongues than those that taste sour or bitter. The baby food industry has built its flavor profiles around this knowledge, creating blends of foods that almost always feature a fruit or vegetable with high levels of natural sugars, such as apple, banana, carrot, pear, and sweet potato, that can overpower the taste of other, less-sweet ingredients. Peruse a baby food aisle and you'll see that sugary blends are more common than single-ingredient purées, and that it's impossible to find bitter or strong-tasting vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, rapini, and asparagus anywhere, not even in the blends.When I poked around my local grocery store, I found containers of "Banana Apple Beet & Berry" (9 grams of sugar per 4.5 oz serving), "Vanilla Banana Berry Risotto" (6 grams sugar per 4.5 oz), and "Pumpkin Raisins and Cinnamon" (13 grams sugar per 4.5 oz). Even the savory "Pumpkin, Pear, and Beef Stew" had 8 grams of sugar. (Who puts pear in a beef stew, anyways?)
Garcia thinks this is appalling and wants the baby food industry to clean up its act as part of the UK's broader campaign against sugar consumption and child obesity. She wrote in the Guardian,
"[There is] little information on the ingredients used in the formulation of commercial baby foods in the British market... The food industry argues that it is using fruit and vegetables, which is true, but the problem is that the moment these fruits and vegetables are mashed and highly processed, the carbohydrates in the cell walls become free sugars."
While I'm all in favor of removing unnecessary sugars from baby foods, I can't help but think that Garcia and other critics of Rycroft's statement are missing the bigger point here, and that is that the industry cannot be blamed entirely for what parents are choosing to feed their infants. What troubles me more is the way in which Western parents teach their babies to eat solid food – or, should I say, fail to teach? Countless smart adults fall for the erroneous belief that filling young tummies with something, anything, is preferable to the child going without food, even briefly; but this, over time, has harmful repercussions – namely, an inability on the child's part to eat anything that does not contain sweetness.
Babies like sugar as much as any human, but that does not mean they should get it, and certainly not until eating habits have been firmly established and it can be perceived as a reward, not a vehicle for other nutrients. A parent who understands this wants nothing to do with processed baby foods. (Apparently this is a majority of parents in the UK, since the number that buys prepared baby foods is estimated to be around one-third.) They stick with homemade vegetables and grains (lentils, rice, peas, chickpeas, green beans, tofu, zucchini, broccoli, etc.) and avoid all fruits. They feed their baby the same foods they eat themselves, and when the baby rejects them, they do not rush off to find a processed alternative. They understand that good training takes time, that learning to eat well from a young age impacts long-term health, and that an appreciation for food is one of the best gifts you can give a child.
As soon as parents start demanding sugar-free baby foods, I have no doubt the industry will bend over backward to provide them, but up until now parents have dropped the ball on this issue. They've been too content to prioritize convenience over nutrition and should examine their own feeding habits before blaming the industry for simply giving them what they wanted all along.