Have you heard the term 'Heath Halo'? I recently read it in a CHOICE report on packaged baby snacks, and I loved it. It reinforced to me just how sneaky these large companies are in the way they can trick parents into thinking they are buying healthy snacks for their baby, when really they are sugar loaded and full of empty calories.
Terms like 'natural', 'organic' and 'wholegrain' make us think that a food is healthy, but really they can be used to mask the truth of what lies below. The report highlighted the use of 'fruit juice concentrate' as a sweetener, which sounds better in an ingredients list than the word 'sugar'.
"Naturally sweetened with fruit ingredients" claims one product, which is actually 35 per cent apple juice concentrate – a small 18g serve contains the equivalent of more than three teaspoons of sugar. Meanwhile, a gingerbread product is "sweetened only with grape juice" … but grape juice concentrate, AKA sugar, makes up 29 per cent of it.
These are some scarily large numbers and are just a couple of the examples highlighted in the CHOICE report.
It is a tricky one though, as we all need the help of a convenient packaged food occasionally. The trick is to choose carefully as some are much better than others.
Hidden pitfalls include claims around vegetable content. The reality is that in many packaged snack foods, these vegetables, while allowing for a seemingly impressive ingredient list, make up less than 1.5 per cent of the total snack and are used in their powdered form – there's nothing fresh or healthy about them.
I make no secret of my distaste for the shelf stable heat-treated pouches and jars that are prolific in stores. These line the shelves making big 'health halo' claims, when really, they are heat-treated so they can sit on the shelf for up to 18 months – this kills the nutritional profile, and makes them taste awful. Manufacturers then use lots of 'natural sweeteners' (fruit puree) to sweeten them up and make them palatable. The problem is that they are so over-processed there is little fibre left in them, and this continued sweetness leads your baby to develop a preference for sweet foods.
Yoghurt is another danger zone – all yoghurts are sweetened, but some far more than others. The natural Greek-style brand I love contains about 6g of sugar, but many of them contain over 20g. Sadly this is really common in the kid-branded yogurts that are sweetened to make kids love them. Squeeze yoghurt pouches are a double-edged sword as they can be sugar loaded, too.
So what can you offer to your baby or toddler?
First thing is to be mindful of what's on the pack. Look for the tricks and read the ingredients listing. Did you know that labelling laws require ingredients to be listed in descending order by ingoing weight? This means that when the food was manufactured, the first ingredient listed contributed the largest amount, while the last ingredient listed contributed the least. So if fruit or water is in the top few ingredients, you know it makes up a large percentage of the product.
Make informed decisions, and where possible avoid foods that contain 'Health Halos', particularly when you can see 'sweeteners' high up the ingredients list.
Always taste the food you are offering to your baby or toddler, and if you think it is overly sweet or suspect in flavour, don't serve it. I always say that if you're not prepared to eat a food yourself, you shouldn't offer it to your baby. After all, would you like to eat a kale, carrot, cabbage and spinach biscuit? I don't think so.
Making your own food is always the best approach, and being organised with a selection of clean healthy snacks on hand will help you avoid the questionable pre-packaged options.
Good options include:
- wholemeal sandwiches with cream cheese, Vegemite or natural nut butters (allergies permitting)
- fresh fruit pieces and vegie sticks
- pikelets and fritters
- vegetable-based muffins - see a recipe here
- plain yoghurt
- plain rice cakes or corn thins
- boiled eggs.
These are all easy to prepare (recipes can be found in my book, Food Babies Love) and will survive a day in a handbag until required.
Emily is the author of Food Babies Love: a guide to introducing solids, and creator of Food Babies Love Fresh Pots – a range of fresh baby and toddler meals. Check out Emily's products and read more at foodbabieslove.com.au.