Nestle Cerelac Row: Here’s Why Parents Must Avoid Sugary Treats for Babies & Infants

Swiss food giant Nestle is embroiled in a controversy over one of its best-selling baby food brands, Cerelac, in India as it has been found to contain high levels of added sugar in contrast to similar products in the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, and other developed nations, according to an investigation by Swiss agency Public Eye.

The investigations reveal that Nestle, the world’s largest consumer goods company, adds sugar and honey to infant milk and cereal products in several countries, violating international guidelines aimed at preventing obesity and chronic diseases.

Cerelac is a range of cereals for complementary food for infants from six months onwards when doctors advise starting solid foods to meet the baby’s growing nutritional requirements.

The research revealed that in India, each serving of all 15 Cerelac baby products contains an average of nearly three grams of sugar. Conversely, the same product is marketed without added sugar in Germany and the UK. However, in Ethiopia and Thailand, it contains almost six grams per serving, according to the study.

The company, however, has issued a statement, saying its products “are manufactured to ensure the appropriate delivery of nutritional requirements such as Protein, Carbohydrates, Vitamins, Minerals, Iron etc. for early childhood”.

“We never compromise and will never compromise on the nutritional quality of our products. We constantly leverage our extensive Global Research and Development network to enhance the nutritional profile of our products.”

A Nestle India spokesperson said: “Compliance is an essential characteristic of Nestle India and we will never compromise on that. We also ensure that our products manufactured in India are in full and strict compliance with CODEX standards (a commission established by WHO and FAO) and local specifications (as required) pertaining to the requirements all nutrients including added sugars. Reduction of added sugars is a priority for Nestle India. Over the past 5 years, we have already reduced added sugars by up to 30%, depending on the variant. We regularly review our portfolio and continue to innovate and reformulate our products to further reduce the level of added sugars, without compromising on nutrition, quality, safety, and taste. Nestle India is committed to delivering the best nutrition to our consumers, which we have been doing for over 100 years and would always maintain highest standards of Nutrition, Quality and Safety in our products.”

Sugar renders products addictive, enticing babies to consume them and consequently boosting company sales. However, this habit is unhealthy and can lead to harmful effects later in life.

Let’s understand what’s wrong with giving higher sugar to infants and babies and when and how sugar should be introduced to babies.

Why sugar is harmful

Many Indian parents choose to buy this product for their children aged 6 months to 24 months because Nestle promotes its brand Cerelac as a range of nutritious and easily digested instant cereals. In India, in 2022, the sales of Cerelac exceeded $250 million, whereas globally, it recorded sales of over $1 billion that year.

However, experts told News18 that sugary products are harmful for children and infants and parents, as well as grandparents, need to understand the reasons.

Dr Hridish Narayan Chakravarti, Consultant — Diabetology & Endocrinology, Narayana Hospital, Howrah explained that “by now, doctors have evidence that giving sugary foods too early in a child’s life may impact their developmental trajectory, influencing their food preferences and eating habits in the long term”.

The American Heart Association recommends that children under two years of age should not consume any added sugar in their diet and children between 2-18 years should limit their daily intake to less than 10 per cent of their energy intake.

Also, according to the guidelines from the World Health Organization, sugar is not recommended for infants. The introduction of added sugar can increase the risk of long-term health problems in babies, leaving them vulnerable to conditions such as diabetes and other chronic diseases.

Supporting the recommendations from global bodies, Indian experts believe that excess sugar consumption among infants and children is harmful as it leads to a variety of health issues like tooth decay, obesity, and an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

“It contributes to behavioural problems and affects their concentration and learning ability and also causes mood swings,” said Dr Pooja Khanna, Assistant Professor, Department of Paediatrics, Amrita Hospital, Faridabad.

Dr Srikanth Darisetty, paediatrician and neonatologist at Hyderabad-based Yashoda Hospitals, warned that due to easy availability and increasing trend of consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, Indian children are prone to obesity and non-communicable diseases.

“Consumption of these foods leads to higher free sugar and energy intake, leading to obesity, heart disease risk, high blood pressure, behavioural symptoms, hyperactivity, inattention disorders and poor nutritional quality of diet.”

Educating grandparents

Multiple doctors News18 spoke to indicated that parents often struggle between managing the dietary needs of their children on one hand and their elderly parents on the other, who believe that sugar is a vital source of energy and have traditionally fed it to children for many years. “This needs to be taught to the entire family, including grandparents. They should be explained gently about the harms of too much salt and sugar at an early age,” Khanna said.

Another expert, Dr Chakravarti, also said grandparents should understand the rationale behind the benefits of limiting sugar intake from an early age. “Parents have a dual responsibility. They need to educate both children and their parents. We need to emphasize the long-term impact of early dietary habits on a child’s health and well-being.”

How to introduce sugar?

According to paediatricians and health experts, parents need to understand that there are several options available. For example, fruits offer essential nutrients and are suitable for introduction to infants as they begin to transition to solid foods.

Sugar is naturally present in many foods such as fruits, vegetables or milk. However, parents should avoid added sugar and other sweetening agents which are added to a lot of products.

“Whenever introducing sweet taste to children, it’s always best to prioritise natural sources of sugar. This includes fruits like berries, vegetables like carrots, homemade purees without adding sugar, plain yoghurt etc,” Khanna said.

Similarly, Chakravarti from Narayana Hospital suggested that homemade snacks using healthier sweeteners like mashed bananas, apple sauce, or dates can also provide a nutritious and satisfying alternative to commercially processed sugary products. “Homemade freshly prepared fruit juice should be encouraged rather than giving tetra pack juices.”

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