Convenient, appetizing, and seemingly healthy, food pouches appear to be the perfect solution – but time-starved parents might want to pause before loading up their pantries, according to research by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).
The U.S. has the largest food pouch market and sales of these handy products for babies and toddlers continues to grow, according to a recent Nielsen report. Defined as containers with plastic spouts at the top from which food is squeezed and sucked, they offer many immediate advantages like minimizing mess while providing your little ones pureed fruits and vegetables. But beneath the sleek packaging and advertising, often promising no added sugar, there could be significant drawbacks.
“It’s not about demonizing pouch foods, but approaching them with healthy caution and considering the options. What might be a split-second choice out shopping is actually a really important decision,” said Courtney Byrd-Williams, PhD, assistant professor of health promotion and behavioral sciences at the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at UTHealth School of Public Health Austin campus.
Byrd-Williams decided to study the health-related aspects of food pouches after she experienced their attraction firsthand as a mother of two young daughters.
“Standing in the grocery aisle can be quite overwhelming. There are so many new products promising to deliver it all in one handy, hassle-free pouch. My girls like them and when you’re traveling, they’re a lifesaver,” Byrd-Williams said. “But from the outset, I’ve always been clear that they’re a ‘sometimes’ food. We still need to understand more about the product and its longer-term impact so clear guidance can be given to parents.”
For Byrd-Williams, food pouches pose serious questions in three key areas: a child’s eating habits, their experience with whole foods, and muscular development.
“Pouches may influence future food preferences – for example wanting apple puree as opposed to a whole apple. It takes 10 to 15 introductions of a new food to an infant or toddler in myriad ways for them to accept and enjoy it,” Byrd-Williams said. “So the greater the variety of foods and textures presented early on, the better.”
Sipping on a pouch of puree means missing out on the multisensory aspect of mealtime from a taste and texture perspective, she said. This could make the transition to family table foods harder for young children.
“Weaning your child can be worrying for a parent, because gagging, an entirely natural process, can look like choking,” Byrd-Williams said. “But this is all part of the process of learning how to chew and developing those muscles required not just for eating and drinking, but also speaking. Food pouches may provide peace of mind in the moment at the expense of other vital mechanisms with broad implications.”
Childhood obesity levels have more than tripled since the 1970s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with data showing nearly 1 in 5 U.S. school-age children and young adults are overweight or obese. This presents another concern, particularly as pouch foods may promote overconsumption.
“Eating solids is a more interactive, labor-intensive activity. An infant naturally resists when they are full. But pureed food is easier and faster to consume, increasing the risk of unconsciously having too much,” said Byrd-Williams.
Parents should also keep an eye on the sugar content, as illustrated in a recent study published by Byrd-Williams and co-authors on the prevalence of food squeeze pouches in packed lunches for infants and toddlers at child care centers.
The article, which appeared in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, reported that pouch food accounted for nearly half of the lunches’ total sugar content (41 percent), compared to only a fifth of its total calorie content. Co-authors included Deanna Hoelscher, PhD, RDN, regional dean at the UTHealth School of Public Health Austin campus and Sara Sweitzer, PhD, RD, LD, associate professor of instruction in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin College of Natural Sciences.
Unpublished pilot data gathered subsequently by Byrd-Williams sheds further light on the issue. Looking at two separate lunches of preschoolers, pouch foods were a common feature among all age ranges: 6 to 12 months, under 2 years, and under 3 years. Sweeter options were favored: 6 of 10 pouches were fruit combinations, and 4 of 10 were fruit and vegetable pureed together. None were purely vegetable.
“Vegetables coupled with fruit masks the real flavor of the vegetable. Parents may like to think their child is enjoying vegetables, but that’s not strictly true. They’re getting used to having sweetened vegetables, which is far from ideal,” said Byrd-Williams.
Despite the prevalence of pouch foods, many questions remain.
“We’re just scratching the surface, and much more needs to be done. Ironically, what sets pouch foods apart could be their biggest downfall. They may be quicker and cleaner, but they’re also bypassing the crucial process of learning about food,” Byrd-Williams said. “Learning is hard and messy and avoiding it isn’t the answer. When we consider what convenience food has done to adult health, there are plenty of reasons to pause before passing your child another pouch.”