Some snacks aimed at children and marketed as healthy are as bad as sweets, experts have warned.
In a new report, Public Health England (PHE) said a Government crackdown was needed to tackle misleading claims and to cut the amount of sugar children consume from shop-bought foods.
It said too many pouches and purees in jars are high in sugar, while snacks deemed “healthy” by manufacturers can be far too high in sugar and salt.
This is leading to confusion among parents over what to buy – with many believing misleading health claims.
In the report, PHE experts pointed to examples where foods were very sweet (from fruit sugar) but were marketed as being about vegetables.
One pouch labelled broccoli, pear and peas actually had 79% pear, 14% peas and 7% broccoli, while carrot oat bars were 30% apple puree and just 11% carrot powder.
Kale, kiwi, peas and pear had 53% pear as the main ingredient, followed by 22% kale and 13% pea.
When it came to snacks, some were marketed as “packed with seven key vitamins and minerals including iron and calcium” but had 29g of sugar per 100g.
Another marketed as “one of five a day” and “packed with real fruit” had 67.7g of sugar.
In its report, PHE said some of the highest sugar levels are seen in fruit and vegetable-based products (47.5g), and sweet finger foods (17g per 100g).
It added: “The highest sugar content is found in processed dried fruit products which are often marketed as healthy snacks due to their high fruit content, but the sugar in these products is often free sugars as they contain ingredients such as fruit juices, purees and concentrates.
“These should not be marketed as suitable for children to eat between meals.”
Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, said snacking among babies and children has grown in popularity in recent years.
She told PA: “We accept that children snack and they probably need to snack but we absolutely think there should be limits on that.
“What’s going on at the moment is that there’s been a big expansion in the baby snack food market and lots of those are high-sugar snacks.
“Some of these products have lots of statements saying they are one of your five a day, organic or full of vitamins.
“People can think these are great products that are good for you.
“But we are concerned about the high sugar content of these products and the growth in the market in that area.”
She said issues caused by too much sugar included obesity and tooth decay.
Some products, such as those shaped as small 100% concentrated fruit drops or strips, were as high in sugar as sweets, she added.
“They are basically sweets but they are marketed as being 100% pure and it’s confusing parents,” she said.
“When you eat those products they stick to your teeth – that will cause tooth decay.
“If your child eats an apple, that sugar is pretty diluted in a few slices of fruit.
“But if they eat a concentrated fruit product, the child is getting much more sugar than they would in a few slices of apple.”
Health experts recommend snacks such as fresh fruit, plain yoghurt, carrot sticks and toast fingers.
PHE also wants to see a crackdown on foods marketed as being for infants as young as four months, which contradict official guidelines that babies should not be weaned before six months.
Research among parents shows high levels of trust that food manufacturers know what is best for babies.
Labels with “from four months” suggested that is a safe time to start introducing solid foods, the study among parents found, while “the use of ‘organic’, ‘preservative free’, ‘no added sugar etc’, and headline vegetable ingredients/borrowing real food names (eg carrot sticks), especially on premium brands, suggested these were healthy products”.
Baby meals make up three-quarters (76%) of all commercial baby food and drink products, with finger foods at 22% and drinks at 2%, the PHE report said.
Sweet finger foods make up nearly half of all baby finger food products and 10% of products overall.
Baby finger foods have been the growth driver in the baby food and drink market in recent years (spend increased from £61 million in 2014 to £101 million in 2018) and volume sales grew by 10.8% in 2017/2018.