Don't Blame Food Companies for What You Feed Your Kids

Parents feed babies candy, soda, and chips. What does this have to do with the industry?


Credit: seanmfreese / photo on flickr

A study of infant diets in one British city has revealed some uncomfortable truths about what many parents feed their children.

The study, by lead author Pinki Sahota of Leeds Beckett University and several colleagues, tracked the diets of more than 1,250 babies in the city of Bradford, England.

The study was published online last year in Public Health Nutrition but appears to have made it to print only earlier this year. It was intended to look at "the dietary intake of key indicator foods at age 12 and 18 months and to identify any differences between White British and Pakistani populations."

What the authors found disturbed them.

"Some mums were giving children chips, crisps and sugary drinks at five months old," said the study's lead author, Sahota, in comments this week to the Daily Mirror. "The fact children are having this kind of food at such an early age is concerning enough. But parents are establishing bad eating habits for life."

She's right. Parents are to blame here. But they're not alone. The parents of those parents, too, who've failed to teach their own children that feeding French fries and soda to an infant is no way to raise a child, deserve some share of the blame.

Lawmakers also shoulder some responsibility. As Grub Street notes, the UK government has actually encouraged parents to feed candy bars and other junk food to finicky babies. And, to be clear, the study authors bluntly conclude many dietary failures arise in large part from a lack of education.

"Low-educated younger mothers tended to be the worst," Sahota says. "Older, more educated parents knew the value of fruit and veg."

While I find it slightly distasteful to refer to poorly educated young mothers as "the worst," and am uncomfortable with the study's "White British" and "Pakistani" classifications (why not, for example, "Pakistani British"?), things start to go off the rails for other reasons. Specifically, the study's lead author walks things in that direction when she points a finger at those who make and market food.

"[Parents] need to be supported by the food industry," Sahota told the Mirror. "They could reformulate some of their high-fat and high-sugar products."

Too often, as I've noted time and again, that tired old trope is the public-health community's answer to everything. If Sahota were talking about a wholly voluntary change—could instead of must—then I might be on board. But the fact she's recently come out in favor of a host of severe food regulations makes me think otherwise.

For example, she appears to support restrictions on marketing food to children. That's both a non-sequitur and nonstarter. No amount of television watching by an infant is responsible for the fact they're consuming French fries instead of breast milk or pureed bananas and apricots.

Sahota has also cheered on a new British government proposal to tax sugar-sweetened beverages, a nonsensical law of the sort I've opposed time and again.

The "they could reformulate" argument travels along these same lines. After all, forcing food makers to reformulate their products is one stated goal of those who support punitive food taxes.

Together, these factors increase the likelihood this is this just another study that may contain some important facts—and the potential to use those facts to argue chiefly for better education of parents and children—but which will instead be used to vilify food makers and justify intrusive and ineffective regulations.

Asking why parents feed their kids poorly is an important question that researchers should continue attempting to answer. Designing interventions to help fix the problem is a worthy aim. But demonizing and punishing food makers won't get us closer to that goal.