Sales of sweetened drinks may now be banned in schools in the country, at the same time that the government has launched high-profile efforts to inform adults about the effects of sugar and obesity on their health. But few parents are aware of the content of sugar in the food they give their newborns and toddlers.
According to Kathy Lowes-Switzer, a paediatric dietitian and secretary of the Singapore Nutrition and Dietetics Association’s private practice group, authorities have been slow in recognising the this segment of the population.
“From what I’ve seen [their efforts] are more focused on teens and adults, not towards babies and young children. Obesity is starting young,” Lowes-Switzer said.
“They are beginning to raise awareness [among adults] and bringing the sugar levels in drinks down, though guidelines that say they should have no more than 8-11 teaspoons of sugar a day are still pretty high.”
In tandem, officials should also be focusing on informing new parents that the baby foods they buy may still contain high levels of sugar.
The dietitian praised a recent call by Britain’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health for the government to restrict the amount of free sugar in commercially available baby foods.
Reducing child obesity is a key priority in all parts of the UK, with England and Scotland committing to halving rates by 2030.
Targeting food high in sugar and fat is an important part of that aim, following the introduction of a tax on sugary drinks in England in 2018.
Many baby foods can contain high levels of sugar added by the manufacturer, or present in syrups and fruit juices, the RCPCH warns, though labels might suggest otherwise.
"It’s shocking, from a dietitian’s point of view, what marketing can do. This report has been put out to raise awareness and for manufacturers and the people marketing these foods to take action,” Lowes-Switzer said.
“When you’re a busy mum looking for baby food in supermarkets, you look for the healthiest option you can—products with broccoli and pear on the label and you pick these up because you think they are healthy.”
But oftentimes, a glance at the nutrition information section of the label will show fruit juice concentrate to be the main ingredient.
“The parent won’t really know. It’s wrong for the industry to do this,” Lowes-Switzer added.
Call to action
Singapore is faced with a public health crisis, with the cases of diabetes expected to more than double to 1m in the next 30 years without intervention, according to official figures. Recognising this, health authorities have been working with the industry to lower the quantity of sugar in food and drink, while also encouraging residents to take action for themselves by cutting carbohydrates and taking more exercise. They have also banned sugar-sweetened drinks from government offices.
But if this awareness drive is still not extended to babies and infants. By starting babies off with a sweet tooth, they will be more likely to opt for sugary drinks and snacks as they grow older, and so perpetuating the cycle, said Lowes-Switzer.
“Because the baby will enjoy the sweet taste, the more you give it, the more that baby enjoys it. Then it will lead to the child only knowing that taste; they won’t have a range of sweet and savourily tastes in their repertoire.”
“You will see tooth decay getting worse and worse as the baby gets older. It will also increase their insulin resistance, perhaps making them more likely to have type 2 diabetes.
“Because the calorie are high in sugary foods, obesity is another serious issue. Giving a child too much sugar in baby food presents a range of adverse metabolic effects going into childhood and adolescence,” she added.