Promotional claims about baby food can be “misleading” and could “confuse” parents, academics have said.
The researchers said that many baby food products display “healthy halo” promotional messages on the packaging that could trick parents into thinking the products are actually healthier than they are.
For example, some products labeled “vegetable tastes” actually have a higher proportion of fruit which is naturally sweeter.
Meanwhile, “no added sugar” claims can trick parents into thinking the products contain no sugar.
Researchers from the University of Glasgow say current UK legislation does not specifically regulate promotional messages used on commercial baby food (CBF). They therefore wanted to “understand to what extent the baby food industry uses promotional claims on CBFs sold in the UK”.
They looked at 724 baby products sold at 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 about the products, including marketing messages, composition and nutrient details, and health claims.
Each baby food product has an average of nine promotional claims, with one having 17 promotional claims on a single package, according to the new study.
“Promotional claims on CBF packaging are widely used which could mislead parents,” they wrote.
Experts have pointed to phrases such as: “The government advises you not to wean your toddler before the age of six months. Every baby is different!” on products for parents of babies four months and older.
Nearly three-quarters (72%) of products considered snacks had promotional messages about baby-directed weaning.
The authors wrote: “The fierce use of FSC marketing claims reported here is consistent with a WHO (World Health Organization) report concluding that the marketing of FSC is common and pervasive.
“This is concerning as the availability of highly processed baby snacks is on the rise and we have found that dry foods (small bites and cereals) have a high number of health claims.
“Dry bites are given as snacks, but snacks are not recommended in this age group.
“Thus, the promotion of snacking habits from 6 to 12 months should be limited because of the negative implications for obesity.”
They added that phrases such as “first tastes” or “vegetable tastes” and/or nutrition claims such as “no added sugar” could “mislead parents into thinking that LSC is free of sugars and accustom children to sweet tastes”.
And the term vegetable tastes “suggests that the food is made of vegetables when in reality the contribution of the ingredients could be a combination of fruits and vegetables with a predominantly sweet taste”.
They warned that promoting high-sugar baby foods could be “detrimental” because food preferences are often formed early in life.
Meanwhile, the term “organic” is used regularly and could influence parental confidence, they added.
The authors wrote: “Promotional claims on CBF packaging are widely used and, for the most part, unregulated. CBFs are promoted using “healthy halo” connotations that might confuse parents.
“Regulations on their use should be put in place to prevent inappropriate marketing.”