Health Research Council launches probe into baby food pouches

Baby food pouches make up 70 percent of baby foods available, but are they safe?

Quick and convenient squeezable baby food pouches will be under the spotlight in a new study by the University of Otago. 

The "First Foods NZ" study will assess the impact the pouches have on babies' growth and dental health.

It will also study baby-led weaning, a technique where parents provide their infants with finger foods so they can choose to feed themselves, rather than switching from milk to smooth purees then introducing more textured foods later.

Health professionals have raised concerns over baby-led weaning as it has potential to increase the risk of iron deficiency, slower weight gain and choking. 

"There is so little research on baby food pouches or baby led weaning that the Ministry of Health is currently unable to advise parents on their use," said Health Research Council acting chief executive Dr Vernon Choy.

"This research will provide some much needed evidence to help the Ministry of Health update their advice on whether and how parents should use these relatively new methods of baby feeding."

Researchers will observe 625 babies between the ages of eight and nine months and measure their nutrient intake while assessing the impact the food pouches are having.

A 2018 audit of one of New Zealand's largest supermarket chains indicated the pouches comprise 70 percent of all baby food available.

Associate professor Anne-Louise Heath will run the study, and she says while the nutrient content of the pouches may be similar to jars of baby food, it's the delivery method that is concerning.

"Anecdotal reports suggest babies are often consuming the food straight from the pouch, unsupervised," said Heath in a statement on Wednesday.

A 120 gram baby food pouch is the equivalent of 22 teaspoons of food. To spoon feed a baby this much takes time, but squeezing a pouch is much faster.

"We want to find out if pouches result in babies overeating because they're so easy to eat, and if they're displacing more nutrient rich foods such as breast milk from the diet," said Heath.

The research team will also track dental health to see if the sugary and acidic content in baby food are causing problems.

"When these baby foods are consumed by sucking on a pouch, the teeth are bathed in fruit sugars, and probably much more so than if they were to eat a whole fruit or be spoon-fed. This could increase the risk of tooth decay," Heath said.