Infants at risk of tooth decay from high-sugar snacks

10 November 2021
7 min read
Published:

As part of Sugar Awareness Week (November 8-14), Action on Sugar are calling for the removal of misleading sugar claims on baby and toddler sweet snacks, such as biscuits and rusks.

A new product survey by Action on Sugar (based at Queen Mary University of London) has exposed the alarming amounts of sugars found in many baby & toddler sweet snacks such as biscuits, rusks, oat bars and puffs.

Their survey revealed that some products contained two teaspoons (around eight grams) of free sugars per serve – despite the fact that children of this age should not be eating any free sugars at all. Meanwhile, children aged 1.5 to three are exceeding seven teaspoons (27.9g) of free sugars a day – which isn’t far off the daily sugar limit for adults, which stands at 30 grams.

Free sugars are any sugars added to food and drink, either at home or by a manufacturer, but also includes naturally occurring sugars, such as honey, syrups (maple, agave and golden), nectars (blossom), and unsweetened fruit juices, vegetable juices and smoothies. However, sugar found naturally in milk, fruit and vegetables do not count as free sugars.

According to Action on Sugar, free sugans in food and drinks are the main cause of tooth decay.

The group of experts is particularly concerned with claims such as ‘no added sugar/refined sugar’ when such ingredients are replaced by fruit concentrates (which are still a type of free sugars and should be limited).

Action on Sugar is also urging the government to finally publish its long-awaited composition guidelines for baby and toddler products which will guide manufacturers on how much sugars should be used – making them mandatory in order to create a level-playing field across the sector.

The product survey, which analysed 73 baby and toddler sweet snacks sold in stores, found ‘Heinz Farley's Mini Rusks Original’ to be the worst offender, with 8.7g of sugars per serve – that’s the equivalent of 2 teaspoons of sugar! Despite the health claims about added vitamins and minerals on pack, this product also contains added sugar. This was followed by ‘Organix Banana Soft Oaty Bars’ at 8.1g of sugars per serve, which are sweetened with apple juice concentrate (a type of free sugars).

When it comes to sugars per 100g – a third (27 of the 73) of the products surveyed would receive a red (high) label for sugars if baby and toddler foods carried traffic light labelling on front of pack.

Rather worryingly, five Kiddylicious products scored the worst for sugars per 100g:

‘Kiddylicious Banana Crispy Tiddlers’ are made up of over half sugars (59g per 100g), whilst ‘Kiddylicious Pineapple, Coconut & Mango Juicy Fruit Bars’ are nearly a third sugars (30.7g per 100g).

Only six products out of 73 (eight per cent) would get a green (low) label for sugars.

Currently, there is a gap in legislation for labelling baby and children’s food and drink with front of pack traffic light labelling, which means these products are not required to display them. Yet all the products surveyed that would be red (high) for sugars (under the current traffic light system) also featured a claim that could be distracting and possibly misleading“Packed with vitamins and minerals” or “Made with real fruit” – despite containing added sugar, fruit juice concentrates or similar – all of which are free sugars and considered harmful to health.

High and low sugars examples are in Table 1 below.

Table 1: Baby & Toddler sweet snacks with highest and lowest from each category in sugars per 100g

Product Name

Sugars (g) Per
 100g

Age Guidance (months)

Front of Pack Claims

Ingredients*

Baked/Hard texture

 

Highest

Heinz Farley's Mini Rusks Original

29

Seven +

·         Golden baked goodness

·         Packed with 7 key vitamins & minerals including iron and calcium

Wheat flour, sugar, sustainable palm oil, raising agents (ammonium carbonates), calcium carbonate, emulsifier (monoglycerides), niacin, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin A, vitamin D

Lowest

Nestle Cerelac Wheat Raspberry & Banana Cereal Snack

2.8

Eight +

·         Organic

Organic rice semolina (45 per cent), organic wheat flour (41 per cent), organic sunflower oil, organic banana powder (three per cent), organic raspberry powder (1.2 per cent), acidity regulator (calcium carbonate), thiamin (B1), antioxidant (tocopherol-rich extract)

Baked/soft texture

 

Highest

Kiddylicious Apple Fruity Bakes

33

12+

·         Made with real fruit

·         Whole wheat flour

·         No artificial preservatives

Whole wheat flour (39 per cent), apple filling (35 per cent), apple purée (67 per cent), apple juice concentrate (33 per cent), apple juice concentrate, sunflower oil, rice flour, raising agent: bicarbonate of soda, thiamin (vitamin B1)

Lowest

Piccolo Mighty Oaty Bars Banana & Cocoa

18.3

12+

·         Organic

·         No added sugar

·         No added salt

·         Gluten free

·         Fibre

·         Perfect for lunchboxes

Organic gluten free oat flakes (41.5 per cent), organic apple juice (26 per cent), organic inulin (from agave) (nine per cent), organic sunflower oil high oleic (eight per cent), organic banana powder (seven per cent), organic quinoa flakes (three per cent), organic rice crisp (two per cent), organic coconut milk (two per cent), organic cocoa (1.5 per cent), organic antioxidant: rosemary extract < per cent

Puffed/Aerated texture

 

Highest

Kiddylicious Banana Crispy Tiddlers

59

12+

·         1 of 5 a day

·         Gluten Free

·         No artificial additives

·         Packed with real fruit

Apple juice concentrate (35 per cent), pear juice concentrate (35 per cent), banana puree (17 per cent), puffed rice (eight per cent), banana flakes (3.5 per cent), natural flavouring, gelling agent (pectin), citrus fibre, lemon juice concentrate

Lowest

Kiddylicious Blueberry Rice Crispy Sticks

3.1

18+

·         No added salt

·         Gluten and nut free

Rice crisps (rice flour, rice wholemeal flour) (41 per cent), sunflower seeds (19 per cent), inulin (chicory fibre), quinoa crisps (quinoa flour, rice flour) (eight per cent), sunflower oil, acacia fibre, blueberry (1.6 per cent), natural flavouring, thiamin (vitamin B1)

*Sweetening ingredients are in bold

What’s more, a quarter of the products (36 out of 73) surveyed claim on-pack that their sweet snacks are suitable for babies under the age of 12 months even though sugar sweetened food and drink should be avoided in this age group.[i]

Following a public opinion poll by Action on Sugar of 1,000 parents with young children (aged between one to three years old) to gain insights on what motivates them when choosing products for their babies:

  • Over eight out of 10 (84 per cent) said they buy these so called ‘healthy’ baby & toddler sweet snacks for their children.
  • Six out of 10 (60 per cent) say that a ‘no added sugar’ claim would be the reason for choosing a particular product.[ii]
  • 92 per cent said they were more inclined to buy products containing ‘natural sources’ of sugars (e.g. fruit).

Dr Kawther Hashem, campaign lead at Action on Sugar and research fellow at Queen Mary University of London, says, “It’s ludicrous that certain food companies are being allowed to promote their high sugar sweet snacks to parents with very young children, despite them being aware that babies and toddlers shouldn’t be having any free sugars.

“Babies can have a preference for sweet foods, due to milk being ever so slightly sweet, but liking sugary foods is something they only learn by eating sugary foods. Some companies choose to encourage this preference further by providing lots of very sweet products from an early age. What we need is companies to make products with minimal amount of sugars, so young children can grow up enjoying less sweet foods.”

Holly Gabriel, registered nutritionist at Action on Sugar, explains, “Using healthy-sounding claims on sugary foods is normalising sweet snacks at a young age.  Given just a few baby & toddler sweet snacks would be considered low in sugar, the Government must release their long-awaited commercial baby food and drink guidelines and make them mandatory to hold all companies to the same standard. The Government must also investigate the best way of labelling foods for babies and toddlers to provide better and more honest packaging for parents.”

Professor Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Sugar, adds, “Consuming too much sugar on a regular basis means we’re eating too many calories.  If we don’t use those calories as fuel, our body will store them as fat. This can lead to weight gain, and if this happens to our children, it’s likely they will carry the weight into their adolescent and adult years, potentially leading to overweight or obesity, as well as suffering from agonising tooth decay. It is therefore imperative that food companies act more responsibly and commit to reformulate sugar, salt and calorie reduction instead of foisting unhealthy products with misleading nutrition claims upon well-meaning parents.”

Linda Greenwall, founder of the Dental Wellness Trust, says, "The latest dental survey from Public Health England 2019 showed that over 23 per cent of children in England have dental decay. This can lead to tooth ache, pain, infection and early tooth loss, which isn't just detrimental to a child's dental health but has a knock-on impact to their development, nutrition and growth.  Dental decay is preventable, it's caused by too much sugar and not enough brushing. We are very concerned about children's dental health and the impact of covid. With challenges accessing dental care and increased consumption of sugary snacks, we fear that oral health in this country has declined. 

"We want to empower children with the knowledge about the negative impact that sugar has and allow them to make the right choices for their health. Reducing the consumption of sugary drinks and snacks is essential for the fight against dental decay, childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes."

Meanwhile, Professor Claire Stevens CBE, Spokesperson, BSPD, has also responded, telling The Dentist, “The research by Action on Sugar of foods manufactured and promoted as baby and weaning snacks showed an alarming level of unnecessary sugar. Whilst many of these infant foods might appear “healthy”, this is not always the case and action needs to be taken to improve clear and concise on-pack messaging.  Through BSPD’s Dental Check by One campaign (DCby1), we urge all parents and care-givers to take their baby to the dentist before their first birthday for a check-up.  This will allow infants to be assessed, given good oral care advice – as well as helping babies get used to having their teeth and mouths examined. Parents and care-givers can learn more at https://www.bspd.co.uk/patients/dental-check-by-one.”

 

[i] There is a need for better understanding of the risks associated with free sugars in foods given to infants in first foods, there are currently no recommended daily maximum guidelines for those under 4 as sugar sweetened food and drink should be avoided in this age group. SACN (2018) Feeding in the First Year of Life: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/725530/SACN_report_on_Feeding_in_the_First_Year_of_Life.pdf

[ii] The research was conducted by Censuswide, with 1000 respondents aged 16+ in the UK between 18/10/2021 – 21/10/2021. The survey was conducted from a nationally representative of UK adults. Censuswide abide by and employ members of the Market Research Society which is based on the ESOMAR principles.