Baby Food Pouches, Squeezies, and Squishies: Too Good to be True?
A mom and scientist looks at what these irresistable fruit and veggie pouches do — and do not — deliver.
In the last decade, baby food aisles have quietly undergone a transformation. They are now dominated by a product that didn’t exist a few short years ago. I’m talking about those handy little suckable packages of ultra-pureed fruit and veggie pouches.
For many of us, baby food pouches (aka “squeezies” or “squishies”) have become an essential part of our survival toolkit.
Cranky kid in the stroller? Hand over a squeezie and turn that frown upside down. Cranky kid in the back seat? Squishie to the rescue! Need a second to check your phone, pee, or simply take a deep breath? Twist the top and enjoy that blissful moment. This sounds like a dollar or two well spent.
Pouches quickly won over parents and caregivers by playing to their top priorities: health and convenience. They boast a short list of wholesome, ingredients, offer impressive vitamin doses, and few scary additives (exceptions include ascorbic acid — aka vitamin C). They are not only portable, but also allow young babies to self-feed and self-soothe, without all the mess! To seal the deal, they are stamped with many of the marketing labels parents seek: organic, all-natural, GMO-free, gluten-free, no additives, no added sugar…
Babies and older kids alike eat them up, literally. What’s not to love? Virtually all of the hundreds of flavours taste sweet, thanks to the naturally occurring sugars in fruits (glucose, fructose and sucrose). We are hard-wired from birth to like sweet tastes, presumably to encourage breastfeeding (breastmilk is quite sweet). Just like the sugars in breast milk, the sugars in fruit send a “cha ching!” signal to your brain. The texture is another selling point for kids. They are super smooth, without any of the chunks you find in home-made baby food. Little ones also love the fact that they don’t have to work hard for their food — they can suck them back quickly and effortlessly. Adorned with fruits and veggie characters, they continue to beckon the older kids.
As with most things in life, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
While these pouches have a lot going for them, homemade baby foods offer many advantages, and nutrition is just the tip of the iceberg.
The homemade advantage
- Fiber. Homemade baby foods, unless strained, retain their full fiber content. In contrast, the pouch purees are processed in a way that greatly reduces their fiber content. Fiber is critical for slowing the digestion of sugars, dampening the blood sugar spike, feeding our gut bacteria, and keeping us regular. It is one of the most neglected nutrients in developed countries.
- Sugar. Most pouches are high in sugar, but low in fats, protein and fiber. While these fruit-derived sugars are 100% natural, they are no longer in their natural environment — bound up with fiber. In contrast, the sugars found in whole fruits and veggies are bundled with fiber, which, as described above, slows digestion and dampens our blood sugar and insulin responses. This fiber factor is why health authorities around the world are imploring us to crack down on our intake of “free sugars” (see Scientific Review of National and International Sugar Guidelines; World Health Organization Sugar Guidelines Q&A).
- Palate development (taste and texture). Pouches, even those with hidden veggies, do not provide the exposure to the taste, texture, and look of veggies that foster a future love. Science tells us that as parents need to be patient and persistent with veggies — repeated exposures, as many as twenty, may be needed to win over a child’s taste buds. While many baby food pouches claim to contain veggies, the reality is that the relative amounts are, in many cases, minuscule — not enough to foster a taste. The homemade approach also allows you to offer one flavour at a time, the recommended way to foster palate development. In addition, exposure to the sight and smell of food, as well as watching its preparation, can help prevent and overcome picky eating. Another important, yet underappreciated palate consideration is texture. As described by Cyndi Davis, an occupational therapist that specializes in children.
“Whole foods and mashed foods offered sensory variety in every bite. The variety in texture helps develop sensory tolerance and slow expansion to decrease gag that starts developmentally at front of tongue and moves back. Pouches, by contrast, have no variety in texture.”
Cyndi Davis, Occupational Therapist, Childhood specialist, GrowthWorks Therapy
- Motor and sensory development. Whether the baby is taking food on a spoon, grabbing that spoon out of your hand, or scooping up little pieces with their darling chubby hands, eating fosters motor and sensory development. By contrast, the pouches don’t offer much interaction for the eater.
- Food habits. This dimension speaks to where and how food is eaten, rather than what it’s made of. Pouches are designed to be eaten on-the-go, and this is how most of us use them. The IV drip of food we are giving our kids is not doing them a favour in building healthy eating habits. Sharing a meal as a family is an endangered cultural phenomenon that health authorities are increasingly emphasizing (e.g. new Canada Food Guide).
- Cost. Pouches run about $1-$2 or more each. Especially with multiple kids, this can really add up. DIY is so much cheaper — especially for veggies.
- Eco-impact. Last, but definitely not least. Manufacturers are slowly catching on to the uncomfortable thought that we are filling our landfills with pouches. One manufacturer, LoveChild, recently started a pouch recycling program. I am sure other recycling programs are coming — or are already out!
For those who, like me, let convenience reign supreme at times, here are some tips for making healthier choices when you hit the baby food aisle. These two criteria will help you select pouches with more veggies and a better blood sugar response.
Numbers Don’t Lie!
1) Fiber. Aim for 3 or more grams of fiber per serving (though I accept 2 grams in a pinch)
2) Sugars. Aim for sugars to be half of total carbohydrates or less.
DIY Food Sleuthing
I am passionate about empowering consumers to make smart food choices. While the ‘one ingredient’ food list is a useful rule of thumb ,the reality is that most of us struggle to get by without some convenience foods.
For this reason, I am a huge advocate of learning to read food labels. The ingredients list is a great place to start, but its utility is limited since (in North America) we don’t get to see the percent composition (or the processing). All we know is that the ingredients are sorted from highest to lowest amount. Learning to navigate the Nutrition Facts table can be extremely helpful, because they help flesh out the story (learn more here).
For example, this well-marketed pouch (organic, gluten-free, no added sugar) promotes “apples, sweet potato, broccoli, spinach, and quinoa”. Yet the amounts of fiber (1 gram!), protein (1 gram) and sugar (9 grams per 17 grams carbs) make it clear that this is really just fiber-free applesauce with a whiff of other ingredients. The nutritional profile of a remotely balanced mix of these foods in their whole form would have more fiber, less sugar, and more protein. Next, please!
The choice is yours
Rather than asking “To pouch or not to pouch?”, I prefer to ask: “How often? Which ones are best? Am I getting the big picture right?”.
My twins are now 3 years old and my son is 8 years old. They all adore pouches and I still offer them occasionally as a treat. When my twins were younger, however, I can’t deny that they were a staple — to the tune of one per day (per twin). I always shopped carefully, and opted for more fiber and less sugar.
From a nutritional perspective, I see no problem with this approach. As long as the other 90% of my children’s diets matter meets their nutrient needs (carbs, fats, proteins, fiber, vitamins and minerals), it’s all good. Similarly, on a developmental front, as long as my child is also getting plenty of whole foods (including veggies!), then I don’t stress about their palate, sensory, and motor development. The same thinking applies goes to fostering healthy food habits. While I’m not as successful as I’d like to be, I work hard at creating a habit of sit-down mealtimes.
In my mind, the biggest problem with regular use of pouches (besides the steep cost, especially with multiple kids!) is the environmental impact. One pouch per day for all children under age 4 in the US is about 20 million pouches per day. Granted, it’s a lot easier to prioritize this aspect now that I’m exiting the ‘survival mode’ years…
A potential compromise that marries the grab-and-go, mess-free benefits of pouches with the better nutritional profile, cost and eco-footprint of baby food is to make your own food and put it into pouches. While the convenience factors takes a big ding, I’ve learned that certain foods are rather easy to whip up. We regularly use recyclable pouches as an alternative to highly sweet yogourt drinks by mixing plain yogourt (dairy or non-dairy) with jam, then pouring into pouches (e.g. these ones from Happy Planet). Add milk or water for a more liquidy version.
Every food choice we make is a tradeoff. My goal is to allow you to make an informed decision. For some families, zero pouches may be the right answer. For others pouches may play a more prominent role.
While I love going into the gory details of each and every food choice, I also strive to keep the big picture in mind, and encourage you to do the same. It’s the sum of all of your daily choices that shape your child’s nutrition, development and the health of our planet.
I am formally trained in human genetics (PhD) and spent the first decade of my career working in cancer research, drug development, and personalized medicine.
This new chapter of my career is dedicated to empowering others to make evidence-based choices that are a win-win. I’m all about facts not fears, and love helping others to dial up their plants and dial down their animal products in a healthy way.
For more nutritional insights — and healthy, simple, recipes (vegan, plant-based) — check out my website, Fueled by Science