The dangers of convenience food for the next generation

Convenience can have unwanted consequences when it comes to children's health. The rising trend of puree foods in plastic pouches could affect your child's speech.

If today’s children are tomorrow’s food shoppers, what do we know about their diet and the foods they might favour?

Associate Professor Clare Wall leads the nutrition department in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at the University of Auckland. 

“The infant diet has changed in a similar way to the adult diet,” she says. “More processed food, more salt, more sugar, more fat.”

Parents do their best, but as the infant grows up, it naturally becomes more and more part of the family and its food environment. “There’s less time and so it becomes harder to prepare separate meals for infants.

“Your food preferences and behaviour start in early childhood. Often if a child has done well, they get a sweet, so we associate lollies with being good. The foods we crave are the ones that influence our pleasure,” says Clare.

If you happen to be raised in a family with limited access to healthy foods, it is harder to change your eating habits as an adult.

“We have overweight children who will grow up to be obese adults.”

Clare is one of the authors of Infant Feeding in New Zealand, commissioned by the Ministry of Social Development. Prior to the report there was no national data collected on what the country’s infants are eating.

The data comes from the Growing Up in New Zealand study, hosted by the University of Auckland, which has followed a cohort of 6,432 children since birth. Those children are now ten and the study has produced a wealth of data and insight into their lives. The report looks at what families actually do when compared with a set of ideal infant feeding guidelines from the Ministry of Health.

The good news is that, on average, these infants are okay. About 94 percent are eating three or more solid meals a day at nine months of age, and more than 80 percent of infant meals had no added sugar and salt. The bad news is that almost half of the nine-month-olds had tried sweets, chocolate, hot chips and potato crisps and only about a third were eating vegetables or fruit twice or more daily as recommended.

The contemporary young Auckland family lives life in a blur of working parents, day care, commutes from hell, drop-offs and pick-ups. Convenience, in all spheres of life, including cooking, becomes highly desirable.

But convenience can have unwanted consequences. Clare and Professor Bryony James, from the Faculty of Engineering, are investigating potential effects on a rising trend in convenience food for infants: puree foods in plastic pouches.

“The idea is that the product is only to be used by squeezing it into a bowl and eating it with a spoon, but people give it to infants to feed themselves,” says Clare.

But slurping your food means not developing the dexterity to manage a spoon. As well, puree is more energy dense and processed than a whole food, such as a slice of apple. Clare and Bryony have designed a trial to test whether infants feeding from pouches can change the development of a child’s bite. A good bite is essential for the development of jaw muscles and teeth, which in turn are important for language development. Delayed language development and motor skills have big implications for brain development and learning.

“So, the question is, are we breeding a generation who are used to consuming only soft foods … who are missing development windows?” asks Clare.

From Clare’s perspective, the food business pull is often much stronger than consumer push. The time-poor family faces a barrage of marketing, and what’s best for baby is not always the same thing. The marketers are already looking closely at the next generation of consumers. Babies born since 2010 have earned themselves a cohortdefining descriptor, ‘Generation Alpha’.

Although they are true digital natives, growing up with iPad, Siri and Alexa, they are inheriting a troubling epidemic: obesity. New Zealand has the third-largest percentage of overweight or obese children in the OECD, after Greece and Italy.

About a third of our children are overweight, with about one in ten classified as obese. The World Health Organisation is concerned that by 2025, there will be 70 million overweight or obese infants and young children. As they age, they face higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, degenerative disease of the joints and some cancers.

For Generation Alpha, faced with climate change, global obesity and malnourishment, the future of food looks to become more complicated than ever. Siri is unlikely to have the answers on what to do about it.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Ingenio

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