Too much sugar and salt: 64% of baby foods on Maltese market fail WHO guidelines

Shocking study finds only 88 out of the 243 food products on the Maltese market contain the recommended WHO levels of sugar, salt and other nutritional contents

A study undertaken by the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Directorate has revealed that 64% of baby foods available on supermarket stores are unsuitable for children, mainly because these have too much sugar or salt.

The pilot study undertaken in 2018 was carried out in two supermarkets and one large pharmacy that consented to the photographing of over 243 food labels of foods marketed for infants and young children under 36 months in Malta.

The study revealed that 88 (36%) out of the 243 food products tested were found to contain the recommended levels of sugar, salt and other nutritional contents.

“The findings suggest that the quality of most of the food and beverages marketed for infants and young children currently available on the local market are not suitable for infants and young children in this age group.”

The products were tested according to nutritional standards and criteria established by the World Health Organisation’s Regional Office for Europe which has recently developed a ‘nutrient profile model’ (NPM) identifying products appropriate for promotion for infants and young children.

Inadequate nutrition contributes to the development of childhood obesity in a country where around 35% of girls and 37% of boys are overweight or obese.

Since children and babies have an innate preference for sweet tastes and dislike bitter and sour flavours, “early and repeated exposure to sweet foods is particularly worrying as it may further reinforce sweet preferences,” the authors of the study, published in the Malta Medical Journal, said.

The study was limited to foods marketed for children aged six to 36 months, which included dry powdered food, soft-wet spoonable, smooth or semi-puréed foods packaged in jars or pouches and can be spoonfed, meals with chunky pieces, often sold in trays or pots, dry finger foods and snacks, juices and other drinks.

The World Health Organisation guidelines specify that products marketed as suitable for this age group should not contain any added sugars or other sweetening agents, and that the maximum permitted sodium content was set to be 50 mg/100 kcal and 50 mg/100 g.

The food categories that were least likely to meet the WHO guidelines were the soft-wet spoonable, ready to eat foods (33%) and the dry finger foods and snacks (18%). Of this latter category, only 37% had no added sugars and only around half of these products (47%) had less than 15% of total energy from sugar. The confectionery and bars, as well as the rusks and teething biscuits, did not meet any requirements relating to sugar content.

On the sodium content, the one tray/pot meal examined with chunky meat or fish exceeded the recommended levels for salt and did not meet any of the WHO requirements. Also, only 66% of the dry finger foods and snacks fell below the recommended sodium levels.

Another concern was related to the low quantity of protein in these products, namely in the soft-wet spoonable and ready to eat foods, with only 25% meeting the protein requirements.

82 products out of a total 243 products (34%) were found to be promoted as suitable for infants under 6 months which is in breach of WHO guidelines which recommends breast feeding before six months.

The study was authored by Lucienne Pace and Charlene Vassallo, from the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Department, Julianne Williams Margarida Bica and Kremlin Wickramasinghe from the WHO regional office in Europe and Janet E. Cade from the University of Leeds.