The idea of clean eating – enjoying foods in their natural state – has never been more popular.
But it’s not just for us grown-ups. We’re on the cusp of a new wave of weaning as more mums than ever are leaving the sugar out when they’re introducing their babies to food in the first place.
‘Not introducing sugary, unnaturally sweet tastes to a child’s diet is important,’ says nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed.
‘If she’s got a lot of sugar in her diet from an early age, it’s very easy for her to establish a preference to those foods. Leave the sugar out, and she won’t.’
‘Clean weaning’ means simply giving your baby foods that don’t contain added sugar. So fruit and vegetables that have naturally occurring sugars are fine – it’s products that have added refined sugar and sucrose/high fructose corn syrup that are off the menu. You can clean-wean whether you’re feeding her purées or following baby-led weaning.
Not fuelling your baby’s sweet tooth will mean she won’t hanker after sweet treats when she’s a toddler. It also allows you to widen her enjoyment of other foods and give her a healthy attitude to food as an adult. And, of course, it’s much healthier.
Hands up if you have ever opened a family-sized slab of chocolate and taken one piece.
And then another. And then another…
Well, it really wasn’t anything to do with your willpower. ‘While the addictive aspect of sugar hasn’t been proven, there are some experts who believe that because it triggers a very similar response in our brain to addictive substances, it may have addictive properties,’ says Charlotte.
‘Children who are given sweet foods can develop a preference for it – a sweet tooth – and those preferences have been shown to develop on throughout life into adulthood.’
And it’s all too easy to foster this craving for sweet foods.
‘Research has shown if a pregnant mum-to-be drinks a sucrose solution, her baby will swallow more of the amniotic fluid,’ explains Charlotte.
‘But if she has a solution with a bitter taste, her baby stops swallowing or doesn’t swallow as much.’
Wanting to eat sweet foods is instinctive: ‘We are born with a preference for sweet foods because, in nature, a sweet taste suggests the food is full of energy and nutrients. But we’re in a world now where sweet food isn’t always so desirable – often it has next to no nutrients.’
The problem is that too much sugar spells health problems for your child.
‘One third of five-year-olds in the UK suffer from tooth decay due to the amount of sugar they’re having in their diet from a very young age,’ says Charlotte. ‘And too much sugar for older children increases their risk of developing type 2 diabetes and obesity.’
Eating lots of sweet foods has an indirect impact on the rest of her diet too.
‘Children who are offered sweet food may start rejecting other food, especially more bitter food like vegetables,’ explains Charlotte.
‘If a seven-month-old baby is offered a piece of chocolate and then afterwards you are trying to establish a relationship with broccoli, it’s really going to be quite difficult!’
So, why not, when you’re faced with a clean slate and giving your baby her first tastes, avoid giving her any added sugar in the first place? That’s not to say you should never let your child eat sugar.
But if you start at the very beginning of your child’s food journey with food that has no added sugar, she’ll learn to love food for reasons other than sweetness.
‘When you’re first introducing solid food, start with vegetables,’ advises Charlotte. ‘Your child will have a preference for sweet tastes already, so in the beginning, focus on introducing new flavours and help her learn to like all sorts of other tastes. She’ll already like the sweet taste of many fruits, so hold off on those for a while and stick with veggies while she learns to like them. But don’t go so far as avoiding sweeter vegetables, such as sweet potato, red peppers and sugar snap peas.’
Don’t worry if your baby looks distinctly unimpressed by her broccoli florets or purée, though.
‘Expect the food to be spat out and lots of disgusted faces to be pulled,’ says Charlotte.
‘Familiarity is key to a child accepting a food. It’s a survival mechanism, and you need to help get her past her immediate disgust until she starts to think “This isn’t so bad!” So, don’t give up if it looks like she doesn’t like it to begin with. Research shows we can offer food up to 8-10 times in weaning before it’s accepted. The bitter taste of broccoli is very likely to be rejected on first taste, but accepted once it becomes familiar.’
Once your baby is happy eating a wide range of vegetables, add fruit. ‘There are no hard and fast rules here,’ says Charlotte.
‘But once you feel your baby has got her confidence and is starting to accept more vegetables, then go ahead. The idea is not to stop her from enjoying bananas and apples and so on, but to get her to enjoy umami (a Japanese word meaning “a pleasant savoury taste”) and sour tastes before she latches on to enjoying sweetness.’
While you can easily control the amount of added sugar your baby has when you’re making purées and steamed vegetables, it’s a lot harder when you add shop-bought products to the mix.
‘You have to be a little savvy about what you buy,’ says Charlotte.
‘There are so many different names for sugar used in products sold in the UK, but a good general rule of thumb is to read the list of ingredients on the back of the packet, and look for anything that ends in “ose”. More than likely, that means the product has added sugar. Watch out too for sugar added in the form of “high fructose corn syrup”. Avoid honey, sugar syrup and brown sugar too.’
Have a look at the labels on the foods in your fridge and cupboard already, and you might be surprised just how much added sugar you find, even in seemingly healthy products.
And just don’t buy any more food with added sugar. As your baby gets older, you can still give her a sweet treat without giving her added sugar. For example, instead of a flavoured yoghurt with lots of added sugar, offer her a plain yoghurt with fresh strawberries.
Of course, your little one will eat plenty of added sugar in her life at all those parties and play-dates in the future. But if you’ve weaned clean, she’ll love a wide range of other tastes every bit as much as she enjoys that chocolate cake.