Opportunity for improvement as new WHO report sheds light on promotion of inappropriate baby food in Poland

Inappropriate promotion of commercial baby foods can undermine parents’ confidence in home-produced foods and breastfeeding, as well as encourage eating habits that can lead to obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) .

A new WHO/Europe report, “Improving the nutritional quality of commercial foods for infants and young children in Poland”, concludes that inappropriate promotion is a widespread practice, echoing other recent reports from many countries in the WHO European Region.

“Good nutrition during infancy and early childhood is the foundation for good health and development later in life. Exclusive breastfeeding for a child’s first 6 months and early establishment of healthy nutritional habits can protect children from overweight and obesity – conditions associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and other non-communicable diseases in adulthood,” said Dr. Nino Berdzuli, Director. of the Division of Country Health Programs at WHO/Europe.

It has long been recognized that the promotion of commercial foods such as breastmilk substitutes compromises breastfeeding and optimal nutrition for infants and young children. “Yet there is now growing evidence that the inappropriate promotion of commercial foods for babies and toddlers is widespread in several countries in the WHO European Region and can be harmful to health,” continued Dr. Berdzuli.

Promotion against WHO guidelines

According to the latest WHO/Europe report for Poland, many commercial baby foods marketed in the country are inappropriately promoted and nutritionally unsuitable. For example, 43% of baby food products are marketed as suitable for infants under 6 months. The promotion of such products contradicts WHO nutritional guidelines which recommend that infants be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life.

Even though these products are legal under European Union law – which allows complementary foods to be marketed as suitable for babies from 4 months – they violate the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and WHO global guidelines on eliminating inappropriate practices. Promotion of foods for infants and young children.

In 2010, the World Health Assembly called on Member States to end the inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children. WHO guidelines were adopted in 2016 to help countries take action on this issue. Nevertheless, many manufacturers and distributors choose to ignore these recommendations.

Too much sugar, too little protein

The study, conducted by the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases (Office of NCDs) and the Institute of Mother and Child in Poland, found that in the together, more than half (58%) of products promoted for babies and toddlers in Poland provide more than 30% of calories from sugars. Additionally, about a quarter of products contain added sugar or another sweetener, such as fruit juice concentrate.

According to the criteria proposed by the WHO, certain categories of products with a high sugar content should not be marketed as suitable for infants or children under 3 years of age.

The study also indicates that about 40% of baby food products promoted in the country provide too few calories per 100g to meet the needs of infants, while some ready-to-eat foods made from meat, poultry or fish do not provide enough protein to meet the minimum requirements proposed by the WHO.

Babies deserve good nutrition

“The national survey conducted by the Mother and Child Institute shows that 70-98% of infants receive baby food intended for infants and young children. The quantitative and qualitative composition of baby food intended for the youngest children must meet their nutritional needs,” said Dr. Tomasz Maciejewski, director of the Mother and Child Institute. “Findings from the project with the WHO point to the need for health-friendly reformulation of these products.”

“The study should be seen as an opportunity for improvement – every day parents and carers in Poland are faced with a range of commercial products that tell a misleading story. These products are promoted as healthy foods, but in fact , they risk compromising the optimal nutrition, and therefore the long-term health, of babies and toddlers,” said Dr Paloma Cuchí, Head of the WHO Country Office in Poland.

The findings presented in the WHO report add to previous evidence that inappropriate promotion is a widespread practice in other countries in the Region. Policy makers can bring much-needed change to the sector by implementing the following WHO recommended practices.

  • Prevent the marketing of fruit drinks and juices, sweetened milk, confectionery and sugary snacks as suitable for infants and young children up to 36 months.
  • Limit the total sugar content of dry and salty snack foods to ≤ 15% of energy.
  • Prohibit added sugars and other sweeteners (including syrups, honey, fruit juices, fruit juice concentrates and sugar-free sweeteners) in all commercial baby foods.
  • Limit the use of fruit puree, especially in salty foods, to ≤ 5% of total weight.
  • Improve product labeling for sugar and total fruit content, with an indicator to highlight high sugar content on front-of-package labels.

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