Some baby foods contain "staggering" amounts of sugar and fat that make them worse than junk food, according to a survey published today.
Farley's Original Rusks contain more sugar than McVities Chocolate Digestives, and Heinz Toddler Mini Cheese Biscuits have proportionately more saturated fat than a McDonald's quarter pounder with cheese. Cow & Gate's Baby Balance Bear Biscuits meanwhile contain harmful trans fats that were improperly labelled, according to the Children's Food Campaign.
Its researchers examined the nutritional content of 107 foods marketed for babies and young children in UK supermarkets in March. Only half of the products were low in saturated fat, salt and sugar. Among Heinz products, the figure was just one in four.
In the case of Cow & Gate, one in nine products was high in sugars, with more than 15g of sugar per 100g.
"The results of this survey are staggering," said Children's Food Campaign joint co-ordinator Christine Haigh. "Many foods marketed for babies and young children are often advertised as 'healthy'. In reality, in terms of sugar and saturated fat, some are worse than junk food.
"In particular failing to correctly label products that contain dangerous trans fats is outrageous."
After being tipped off about the research, the Food Standards Agency contacted Cow & Gate to express concern at the company's labelling.
"The FSA is aware of this product and has been in contact with Cow & Gate to advise on labelling requirements for ingredients listing declarations of partially hydrogenated animal or vegetable fats or oils," the FSA said in a statement.
"We recommend to all companies that they reduce trans fats levels to a minimum by removing or replacing the hydrogenated vegetable oils with other ingredients, but without raising levels of saturated fat."
Cow & Gate said it reformulated its baby foods in 2007 so more than 90 per cent contained only naturally-occuring sugars. " Of our babyfoods tested by Sustain, only four had sugar levels above 15%. Three of these are biscuits, which require sugar in the recipe and contain 18% total sugars. This is less than most comparable adult varieties and other baby biscuits," a spokeswoman said. "In discussion with the Food Standards Agency we have already taken the decision to discontinue our baby biscuits, when we became aware of presence of hydrogenated fat, which contains a very small amount of trans-fats."
Heinz said it sells reduced sugar rusks with 30 per cent less sugar than Farley's Original Rusks which, it said, have been enjoyed by "generations of babies". It accused the Children's Food Campaign of misleading the public by comparing mini cheese biscuits, with a 25g portion size containing 1.8g saturated fat, with a 194g McDonald's quarter pounder containing 13g saturated fat.
The Children's Food Campaign, an arm of the food and farming group Sustain, carried out the survey to see if baby foods had become more healthy since another group, the Food Commission, published a report in 2000 called Good for sales – bad for babies.
"Nearly a decade on, the survey demonstrates that some companies have taken virtually no action to improve the healthiness of products marketed for babies and young children," said Ms Haigh.
"In addition, Cow & Gate failed to provide our researcher with the requested summary of the nutritional information for all its foods marketed for babies and young children."
She called on the Government to obtain a commitment from companies marketing food for babies and young children to remove trans fats and reduce levels of saturated fat, salt and sugar. In addition, she said, they should develop an understandable labelling system for parents.
The Food Standards Agency said that although babies require fatty food to grow, parents should check the healthiness of products on labels.
How children's foods compare
Heinz Farley's Original Rusks
29g of sugars*
7.4g of fat
3.4g of saturated fat
0.02g of salt
McVities Plain Chocolate Digestives
27.3g of sugars
24g of fat
12.5g of saturated fat
0.3grams of salt
Heinz Toddler Mini Cheese Biscuits
12g of sugars
14.6g of fat
7.3g of saturated fat
1.1g of salt
McDonald's quarter pounder with cheese
5g of sugars
13g of fat
7g of saturated fat
1.1g of salt
* all figures per 100g