Katherine Rich: Baby food claims based on poor understanding of nutrition

19 June 2017

Does anyone vet the press statements put out in the name of Auckland University? I wonder sometimes. More and more, the university’s press office seems to be used as a vehicle to campaign and politicise, rather than to inform.

What’s disappointing to someone who is regularly asked to comment is that so often the press statement summarising the latest piece of research, usually used to make a political point or call for regulatory change, does not reconcile with what’s actually said in the research paper.

The PR will have headline-grabbing statements while the paper is more circumspect and full of disclaimers, clarifications and limitations. 

A good example was the recent PR headline from Auckland University: “Majority of TV food ads are unhealthy and target children”. The statement read: “The majority of foods advertised on New Zealand television are unhealthy, and most of those unhealthy food advertisements are specifically targeted at children.”

But after reading the full paper it was clear the research was complete nonsense and, in my opinion, a classic example of confirmation bias at play. Looking at the dates, the advertisements likely to have been captured by the research’s extreme definitions included Mikey Havoc talking about soup, Jacqui Brown on gravy, ads for women’s breakfast cereal – Special K, the All Blacks promoting milk consumption (I thought encouraging people to drink more milk was a good thing?) and New World price ads with pictures and prices of groceries like fresh chicken, tomatoes, grapes and chocolate - general grocery commercials speaking to adults.

The methodology determined that even if a range of healthier products appeared in the commercial, if one treat food appeared, then the whole advertisement was classified as being unhealthy and directed at children.

It got sillier when the least likely company to ever make a list of top 15 companies with “unhealthy food ads targeted at children” was Chanui, a New Zealand tea company that’s launched a range of plain biscuits like ANZACs and gingernuts. No wonder Chanui's CEO, Doug Hastie, who fronts his own commercials, was rightly rolling his eyes. None of these campaigns tries to speak to or “target” children, and most New Zealanders applying common sense would agree.

But last week’s shock/horror PR push by the university is worse because it attempts to scare parents about what they feed their babies moving onto solid foods.

The headline read “NZ Babies Exposed to a High-Sugar Diet”. Note the word exposed. The implication is that baby food, like stewed apple or banana custard, could somehow be a toxin. Seriously? The story was picked up both by the NZ Herald and FairfaxMedia.

What happened next goes to the heart of my point about the Auckland University being used to promote political campaigns by independent advocacy groups.

While the statement was issued by the university quoting Dr Gerhard Sundborn, in his capacity as part of the university’s School of Population Health, all comments in the stories resulting from the PR are in his capacity as “FIZZ spokesman” (Fighting Sugar in Soft Drinks). The university may be relaxed about campaigners using its credibility and standing to amplify activist messaging of independent groups, but it could be seen by many as a risk to its reputation.

But back to the scaremongering about baby food.

The article on “Babies weaned on to high sugar diets at four months”, published by the NZ Herald on 16 June will unfortunately have caused confusion and concern for parents who are making sound food choices for their babies.

The article contains misinformation and demonstrates a poor understanding of food nutrition. The World Health Organisation (WHO) gives clear recommendations for the intake of free (added) sugars in the diet and explains that these recommendations do not refer to the “sugars in fresh fruits and vegetables, and sugars naturally present in milk, because there is no reported evidence of adverse effects of consuming these sugars”. The WHO is only concerned about the natural sugars in fruits when it is juiced or in concentrated form.

Pre-prepared baby foods available in supermarkets, such as canned, jarred or pouch fruits, generally do not contain added sugars, and neither are they concentrated. Contrary to the misinformation in the articles, these foods do still contain the natural fruit fibres, and because they are cooked in the package (much like home preserving), the water is not lost. A jar of pureed apples for a baby is just like stewing apples in the home (with no added sugar).

It is extremely important people understand that the suggestion in the articles that infants about six months old receive “less than two teaspoons of sugar a day”, relates only to added sugars (for example, sugar in baked foods like muffins). It would be alarming, indeed dangerous, if parents were led to believe this relates to natural milk and fruit sugars.

One 200ml feed of breast milk contains three-and-a-half teaspoons of sugar (natural milk sugar ‘lactose’), and at six months an infant should still be receiving three to four milk feeds a day. And rightly so! No one should be concerned in the slightest about the 10 to 14 teaspoons of sugar from breast milk, and neither should they be about fruits.

It makes absolutely no sense for scaremongering about the natural sugars in milks and fruits. These foods are vitally important for healthy growth and development. Babies are often fed fruits as first foods for good reason. The natural sweetness of breast milk gives babies a completely normal preference for sweet foods, and pureed and mashed fruits are a highly nutritious choice. In the long term, offering babies a variety of fruits and vegetables early on helps to establish sound healthy eating patterns for the rest of their life.

Fruits are such important foods in a healthy diet that as a nation we are concerned that by age five years only half our children are eating the recommended two serves a day. Deterring people from feeding fruits to infants does nothing to address this problem.

Parents can be confident that store-bought baby foods are a nutritious option for their babies and can be used with confidence as part of a mixed, healthy diet. It is certainly not common practice for manufacturers to add sugar to baby fruits and the levels are comparable to fresh fruits often recommended for babies.

Here are some natural sugar levels of fruits per 100g (according to the Concise Food Composition Tables NZ): mashed banana 15.2g, stewed apple 8.0g, Gold Kiwifruit 10.9g, mandarin 9.9g, Wattie’s Pear & Banana (can) 11.9g, Wattie’s Pear, Mixed berries & Banana 9.8g.

The problem with this latest “research” about baby foods seems to stem from a poor understanding of nutrition.

It would be great if some of Auckland University’s food science and nutrition experts in the science department would volunteer to offer their fellow colleagues some advice. Food politics, not based on good science and evidence, does affect reputations.  

Read the TV ads press release here

Read the baby food press statement here. Read the NZ Herald’s report on it here, and Fairfax’s report here.