Funding for research into baby pouches

Anne-Louise Heath. Photo: University of Otago
Anne-Louise Heath. Photo: University of Otago

A total of $40 million in Health Research Council funding is supporting a series of University of Otago projects, including one investigating the health impact of baby

Research by Associate Prof Anne-Louise Heath, of the human nutrition department, will explore whether baby pouches could be "setting our babies up for future problems with obesity and dental cavities''. 

Overall, Otago University academics gained an Otago record of 31 grants, and Prof Janet Hoek, a professor of public health and marketing, gained the only Otago
programme grant - $4.95 million for smoking reduction-related research.

The HRC has awarded $81 million investment in new research projects and programmes throughout the country, including $60.3 million in funding for 53 research projects, including Pacific health and Rangahau Maori projects.

Squeezable baby food pouches with plastic spouts were described as a mess-free and easy food alternative for babies 'on-the-go', and now had "an extraordinary
market share in New Zealand'', Prof Heath said.

An audit last year of one of New Zealand's largest supermarket chains indicated that these pouches made up 70 percent of baby foods available. 

However, despite their apparent widespread use, there has been virtually no published research done either in New Zealand or internationally on the possible
impacts of these pouches on babies' diets or health, an HRC spokeswoman said.  

Prof Heath has received a  $1,185,359 HRC project grant to explore what babies were eating in New Zealand once they moved from an exclusively milk diet to solid food. 

The food in baby food pouches was similar to that found in baby food jars and cans, but their delivery method "has the potential to markedly change infant nutrition'', Prof Heath said.

Anecdotal reports suggest babies were often consuming the food straight from the pouch, unsupervised.

These super smooth foods were "very easy for babies to eat'' and a 120g pouch was the equivalent of about 22 teaspoons of food.  

"It can take a lot of time to spoon-feed a baby that amount, whereas to squeeze out that amount from a pouch is much easier.

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

This 'First Foods NZ' study will observe 625 babies aged between eight and nine months from Auckland and Dunedin, measuring their nutrient intake, particularly iron levels, and assess the impact of baby food pouches on babies' growth and dental health.

The research team will also track the babies to see if the sweet and acidic foods commonly found in baby food pouches - even some vegetable-based varieties -  are causing problems for babies' erupting teeth.

"Manufacturers in New Zealand are generally super cautious about not adding sugar to baby foods, but natural fruit sugar is still sugar.  

"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 whole fruit
or to be spoon-fed. 

"This could increase the risk of tooth decay,'' she said. A recent small randomised controlled trial suggested that even by seven months of age, 12 percent of New Zealand babies might already be consuming more than the World Health Organisation recommendation of less than five percent of energy intake from free sugars,
including fruit purees.

"If you're only giving your baby a pouch every now and again it will probably make no difference to your baby's health, whereas if it's a regular thing it may have risks - or it may have benefits, such as upping your baby's fruit and vegetable intake.

"We have to keep an open mind with our research as we don't know which way it will go,'' she said.

As part of the First Foods NZ study, Prof Heath and co-principal investigator Prof Rachael Taylor would also assess the nutrition, health and safety impacts of another method of feeding that was growing in popularity in New Zealand: baby-led weaning.

This technique involves giving babies finger foods to feed themselves from about six months on, instead of parents spoon-feeding them pureed food and slowly
progressing to more textured food as the Ministry of Health currently recommends.

Proponents of baby-led weaning see it as a healthier, more convenient, and less stressful way of feeding babies; however, some health professionals have raised
concerns about the potential increased risk of iron deficiency, slower weight gain, and choking.

HRC acting chief executive Dr Vernon Choy says all parents want to know what the safest and best way is to feed their babies. 

Other Otago University projects: 

Dr Philip Adamson, $1,549,999; Prof David Bilkey, $489,282; Dr Martin de Bock, $1,317,623; Prof Sarah Derrett, $1,188,041; Prof Michelle Glass, $1,172,581; Assoc Prof Simon Hales, $1,190,579; Prof Bob Hancox,  $1,439,384; Prof Janet Hoek, $1,195,934; Assoc Prof Julia Horsfield, $1,177,919; Assoc Prof Stephanie Hughes, $1,199,417; Dr Karl Iremonger, $1,167,222; Dr Anne-Marie Jackson, $1,192,263; Mrs Bernadette Jones, $1,186,338; Prof Kurt Krause, $1,199,914; Dr Alex Macmillan,
$1,185,793; Assoc Prof Sandra Mandic, $1,197,487; Prof Neil McNaughton, $1,090,630; Prof Tony Merriman, $1,198,120; Associate Prof Brian Monk, $1,199,967; Dr Garry Nixon, $ 943,443; Prof Rachael Taylor, $1,190,308;Prof Suetonia Palmer, $ 1,266,603, and $ 1,439,326; Dr Anna Pilbrow, $1,193,680; Prof John  Reynolds,$1,192,994; Dr James Ussher, $1,191,634; Dr Emma Wyeth, $1,191,067; Assoc Prof Logan Walker, $1,145,197; Dr Allamanda Faatoese, $594,804.

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