Opportunity for improvement
Inappropriate promotion of commercial baby foods can undermine parents’ confidence in home-produced foods and breastfeeding, as well as encourage dietary habits that may lead to obesity and noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).
A new WHO/Europe report, “Improving the nutritional quality of commercial foods for infants and young children in Poland”, concludes that inappropriate promotion is a widespread practice, echoing other recent reports coming from many countries of the WHO European Region.
“Good nutrition in infancy and early childhood is the foundation of good health and development later in life. Exclusive breastfeeding for the child’s first 6 months, and establishing healthy nutritional habits early on, can protect children from both overweight and obesity – conditions that are associated with cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer and other NCDs in adulthood,” said Dr Nino Berdzuli, Director of the Division of Country Health Programmes at WHO/Europe.
It has long been recognized that the promotion of commercial foods such as breastmilk substitutes undermines breastfeeding and optimal nutrition for infants and young children. “Yet there is now growing evidence that inappropriate promotion of commercial baby and toddler foods is widespread in several countries of the WHO European Region and may be harmful for health,” Dr Berdzuli continued.
Promotion against WHO guidelines
According to the latest WHO/Europe report for Poland, many commercial baby foods marketed in the country are inappropriately promoted and are not nutritionally suitable. For example, 43% of baby food products are marketed as being suitable for infants under the age of 6 months. Promoting such products contradicts WHO nutrition guidelines that recommend infants be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life.
Even though such products are legal under European Union law – which permits complementary foods to be marketed as suitable for babies from 4 months – they are in violation of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and the global WHO Guidance on Ending the Inappropriate Promotion of Foods for Infants and Young Children.
In 2010, the World Health Assembly called on Member States to end the inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children. The WHO Guidance was agreed in 2016 to help countries take action on this issue. Nonetheless, many manufacturers and distributors choose to ignore these recommendations.
Too much sugar, too little protein
The study, conducted by the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases (NCD Office) and the Institute of Mother and Child in Poland, found that, overall, over half (58%) of the products promoted for babies and toddlers in Poland provide more than 30% of calories from sugars. In addition, around a quarter of products contain added sugar or another sweetening agent, such as concentrated fruit juice.
According to the criteria proposed by WHO, certain categories of products with high levels of sugars should not be marketed as suitable for infants or children under 3 years of age.
The study also indicates that around 40% of baby food products promoted in the country provide too few calories per 100 g to meet infants’ needs, while some meat-, poultry- or fish-based ready-to-eat foods do not provide enough protein to meet WHO’s proposed minimum requirements.
Babies deserve good nutrition
“The nationwide study conducted by the Institute of Mother and Child shows that 70–98% of infants receive baby food products intended for infants and young children. The quantitative and qualitative composition of baby food for the youngest children should meet their nutritional needs,” said Dr Tomasz Maciejewski, Director of the Institute of Mother and Child. “The conclusions from the project with WHO indicate the need for health-promoting reformulation of these products.”
“The study should be taken as an opportunity for improvement – every day, parents and caregivers in Poland are facing an array of commercial products that are telling a misleading story. These products are being promoted as healthy food, but in fact such products risk undermining the optimal nutrition, and thus long-term health, of babies and toddlers,” said Dr Paloma Cuchí, Head of the WHO Country Office in Poland.
The findings presented in the WHO report add to earlier evidence that inappropriate promotion is a widespread practice in other countries of the Region. Policy-makers can bring much-needed change to the sector by implementing the following WHO-recommended practices.
- Prevent the marketing of fruit drinks and juices, sweetened milk, confectionery, and sweet snacks as suitable for infants and young children up to 36 months.
- Limit the total sugar content of dry, savoury snack foods to ≤ 15% of energy.
- Prohibit added sugars and other sweetening agents (including syrups, honey, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate and non-sugar sweeteners) in all commercial baby foods.
- Limit the use of puréed fruit, particularly in savoury foods, to ≤ 5% of total weight.
- Improve product labelling of sugar and total fruit contents, with a flag to highlight high sugar content on front-of-pack labels.