Promotional claims on baby food products can be “misleading” and might “confuse” parents, academics have said.
Researchers said many baby food products have “healthy halo” promotional messaging on packs which might make parents believe that products are actually healthier than they are.
For instance some products labelled “vegetable tastes” actually have a higher proportion of fruit which are naturally more sugary.
Meanwhile claims of “no added sugar” may make parents believe that products are free from sugar.
Researchers from the University of Glasgow said that current UK legislation does not specifically regulate promotional messages used on commercial baby foods (CBFs) so they wanted to “understand the extent to which the baby food industry uses promotional claims on CBFs sold in the UK”.
They examined 724 baby products sold in Asda, Aldi, Lidl, Tesco, Sainsburys, Waitrose, Morrisons and Amazon between June and September 2020.
Their study, published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, found that more than 6,200 promotional claims were made across the products including marketing messages, composition and nutrient detail and health claims.
Each baby food product has an average of nine promotional claims with one having 17 promotional claims on a single pack, the new study found.
“Promotional claims on CBF packaging are extensively used which could mislead parents,” they wrote.
Experts highlighted phrases such as: “The Government advises that you don’t need to wean your little one until they are six months. Every baby is different!” on products aimed at parents of babies aged four months and older.
Almost three quarters (72%) of products deemed to be snacks had promotional messages about baby-led weaning on them.
The authors wrote: “The ferocious use of marketing claims on CBFs reported here is in agreement with a WHO (World Health Organisation) report concluding the marketing of CBFs to be common
“This is concerning since the availability of highly processed baby snacks is a rising trend and we found that dry foods (fingers foods and cereals) have a high number of health claims.
“Dry finger foods are given as snacks, however snacking is not recommended in this age group.
“Thus, the promotion of snacking habits as early as 6–12 months should be restricted because of negative implications for obesity.”
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They added that phrases such as ‘first tastes’ or ‘vegetable tastes’ and/or nutrient claims such as ‘no added sugar’ could “mislead parents into perceiving that CBFs are free from sugars and get children accustomed to sweet tastes”.
And the term vegetable tastes “suggests foods are made of vegetables when in reality the ingredient contribution might be a combination of fruit and vegetables with a predominantly sweet taste”.
They warned that promoting baby foods which have a high amount of sugar could be “detrimental” as food preferences are often formed in early life.
Meanwhile the term ‘organic’ is used regularly and could influence parental trust, they added.
The authors wrote: “Promotional claims on CBF packaging are extensively used and, for the most part, unregulated. CBFs are promoted using ’healthy halo’ connotations that might confuse parents.
“Regulations on their use should be implemented to avoid inappropriate marketing.”