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Experts urge parents to check labels and look for single-ingredient baby foods. Getty Images
  • The World Health Organization says a majority of baby foods they studied derived 30 percent of their calories from sugars.
  • WHO officials said many of these products are marketed toward parents of infants under 6 months old.
  • Health experts say babies given sugary foods can develop a sweet tooth early in life.
  • Experts say sugar-heavy diets in children can lead to health issues such as obesity and diabetes later in life.

The World Health Organization has issued a warning for parents of infants.

The agency says there’s too much sugar in baby food.

In 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) developed a draft Nutrient Profile Model (NPM) for children ages 6 to 36 months. It was meant to help governments decide which foods should be promoted to parents of children in that age group.

It included language that public officials could adopt sorting foods into two main categories with descriptions that refer to their nutrient levels, such as “energy dense, nutrient poor” or, on the other end of the spectrum, “good for you.”

Under the NPM, WHO officials also devised a way to collect the nutritional data for commercial baby foods and drinks available in most retail settings.

They used data from nearly 8,000 products available in major European cities such as Vienna and Budapest, in which 28 to 60 percent were marketed toward children under the age of 6 months.

The alarming thing they found was that a majority of the products provided more than 30 percent of their calories from sugars.

WHO officials note the practice of marketing high-sugar foods to parents of infants is allowed under European Union law. However, it doesn’t acknowledge the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes — established in 1981 — or WHO Guidance, which both state commercial “complementary” foods shouldn’t be marketed as suitable for infants under 6 months of age.

“Foods for infants and young children are expected to comply with various established nutrition and compositional recommendations,” João Breda, PhD, head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, said in a press release. “Nonetheless, there are concerns that many products may still be too high in sugars.”

While the WHO continues to recommend that children younger than 6 months be breastfed, that’s not possible for every mother of a newborn. Many times, those parents use formulas and baby foods to meet their child’s nutritional needs.

The WHO research pointed to several foods that are the largest offenders, including puréed commercial products, juices, smoothies, yogurts, and desserts.

The researchers noted that more than half of the foods contained a third of their calories from total sugars.

The survey also found the same amount of foods listed sugar, concentrated fruit juice, or other sweetening agents as an ingredient, which the agency says shouldn’t be added to foods marketed toward infants.

Experts say the sugar levels in these foods are a concern because they could have a child preferring sweeter foods throughout their lives.

In other words, these sweeter baby foods could have children developing a sweet tooth long before their first teeth come in.

In 2010, researchers at the University of Calgary in Canada found that more than half of foods marketed at babies and toddlers had 20 percent of their calories coming from sugar.

A 2015 study by researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California found that 74 percent of sampled infant formulas, breakfast cereals, packaged baked goods, and yogurts had 20 percent or more of their calories from added sugars.

Another 2015 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 35 of 79 sampled infant mixed grains and fruits contained 35 percent of their calories from sugar.

Jodi Greebel, MS, RDN, a pediatric registered dietitian, says the WHO’s research isn’t surprising.

“While food companies have always targeted children, the age at which they target has continued to decrease,” she told Healthline. “There continues to be more and more baby foods flooding the market, each trying to differentiate itself and appeal to the insecurities of new parents.”

Greebel says parents should look for single-ingredient foods when their children are younger than 6 months.

She added that companies shouldn’t be allowed to market foods to children of that age if the food isn’t appropriate for them.

Sarah Rueven, another registered dietitian and owner of Rooted Wellness, said a child’s taste preferences are formed and solidified during their first year of life, so she also recommends single-ingredient baby foods.

She says parents should avoid baby food that combines fruits with vegetables because it can teach a child that vegetables only taste good when sweetened.

Rueven said baby foods high in sugar can set up a child for a lifelong addiction to sweet foods.

“Given that babies are born liking sweet foods, it is imperative that they are introduced to the other tastes during their first year of life,” she told Healthline. “This preference for sweets can eventually lead to obesity, diabetes, and other lifestyle-related diseases.”

Lisa Richards, a nutritionist and founder of the low-sugar Candida Diet, says regulators of the food industry need to make changes to what they’re allowed to market toward the youngest of children.

She notes that there are still steps parents can take to help limit the amount of sugar their children consume.

“Parents should educate themselves on how to read nutrition labels, nutrition standards for children, and choose fresh foods and produce when able,” she told Healthline.