What a Dietitian-Mom Has to Say About Baby Food Pouches
Updated: Jun 20, 2022
The popular baby pouches, introduced about a decade ago, now account for 25 percent of baby food sales in the United States, according to Nielsen's Total Food View. Prior to pouches, baby food jars were really the main option parents had for pureed foods. It’s not surprising that they are so popular, they’re so convenient - you can simply pop a pouch in your changing bag and off you go.
According to customer surveys, about 72 percent of 4-9 month old babies have store-bought baby food as part of their complementary diet. So it’s important to get clear on how to include baby food pouches in a balanced way into your little one’s diet. In this post I want to share my opinion as a feeding expert and a mama on the use of pouches for babies and toddlers and give you practical guidelines on how to use them, if you choose to do so.
Let’s start by talking about what I LIKE about pouches...
The Pros of Baby Food Pouches
They’re convenient: Parents tell me all the time that the number one reason they use pouches is CONVENIENCE. And you know what?! I Get it! Just like any other modern family, we are busy! And pouches are incredibly convenient. Nothing gets more convenient than a meal or snack in a bag that doesn’t require heating, prep, or washing dishes.
They promote self-feeding: Compared to baby food jars, pouches encourage independence in feeding. With a pouch, babies can feed themselves at a very early age, sometimes as early as 6 months. Off course, and even better, self-feeding can be encouraged by offering baby finger foods as well.
They help practicing the use of a straw: Sucking from a straw, which doctors don’t expect babies to do until at least 9 months old, is something that can improve how a child eats. I have found that offering a pouch here and there to my little ones have helped them to learn how to drink from a straw quicker.
They can give mama a much needed break: Studies show that even in households where the mom is the primary breadwinner, the burden of meal planning and cooking still falls on her. I’m a mama too, and I know that keeping our little humans well fed and happy is HARD work. Not that you need to, but you have my permission to take a break and hand your little one a baby food pouch.
They can be eaten on the run: I’m a strong advocate for mindful eating, and I do encourage parents to have their kiddos sit down and have actual table foods most of the time. However, I think that at some point our child will end up eating on the run - like during a road trip or a long flight. And giving a puree while moving is safer than giving table food that can be more easily choked.
They are loved by kids: Baby food pouches are fun for kids, and combined with the fact that they can feed themselves, I suspect it’s why we see some kids not wanting to give them up.
However….there is the downside to most things in life, and so here is what I DON’T LIKE about food pouches…
Cons of Baby Food Pouches
Their labels can be misleading: Even though the front label may say that the product has ingredients like kale and quinoa, the ingredient list (the small print next to the nutritional information on the back) will start with a cheaper component such as apple, pear, or carrot puree in most cases. These purees usually provide the bulk of the pouch's contents. How much quinoa or kale is in there? No one knows, since the manufacturers are not required to disclose the percentages. Not that purees aren't nutritious, but your child will get more nutrients by eating the actual fruit and vegetable.
They don’t promote development of new feeding skills: Pouches encourage more sucking… something that babies and toddlers do very well already. If pouches and purees in general are overused, babies can get "stuck" in a puree phase. They can have trouble progressing to lumps and finger foods if you rely on pouches for too long. They could miss the window of opportunity to learn how to handle varied textures and self-feed. Studies show that the late introduction (later than 9 months) of lumpy and finger foods has been associated with feeding and sensory problems in the future.
They don’t help in expanding the palate: Most of them taste sweet, even those with kale, spinach, whole grains, and other generally not-sweet tasting ingredients. Kids already love sweets. Also, with purees the texture is the same in every meal, so it doesn’t help your baby progress through the stages of weaning and accept different textures. One of our goals in feeding is to help kids develop a taste for the foods they do not like yet, and offering the same types of food over and over again won’t help us accomplish this goal.
They can contribute to picky eating: With pouches there is minimal mess. I know that seems great on the surface. But babies and toddlers getting messy while eating is what was meant to happen. As they touch, explore, and play in different textures of food, their brain is learning how to interpret and accept those textures. Pouches really limit the amount that children can learn about foods. The purée is locked inside a sheath of plastic, limiting the child’s ability to smell, feel, or even see it. Because of this, they can actually reinforce a child’s pickiness. They can also reinforce aversions to new textures or smells or to brightly colored (or green) foods!
They don’t really count as a serving of vegetables: While many pouches do indeed have vegetables, it’s important to keep in mind that the process of making a pouch involves dehydrating the food, then reconstituting, then boiling and heating at extreme temperatures for pasteurization, and what’s left is a condensed form of sugar (think a little better than juice!) without the much needed fiber. Also, as much as companies would like parents to think they're getting veggies in their kids with food pouches, without kids actually tasting and seeing the vegetable, it's not helping with their acceptance of them down the road. And that's really the goal.
They can be used as a way to distract kids from their emotions: In my opinion, the biggest issue with pouches is when we use them as a way to distract our little ones, especially toddlers, when they are used mindlessly and as a way to override their hunger cues or not support their ability to connect with their eating environment. Most kiddos can suck a pouch down in 3 seconds or less while they are preoccupied doing other things. This encourages mindless eating, and if done on a regular basis, can negatively shape our child’s relationship with food. It’s important to learn that when it’s time to eat you stop, eat, and listen to your body. Teaching them to listen to whether it is telling them that they are hungry or full is one of the best skills that we can help your child foster.
My Official Guidelines for Using Food Pouches for Babies and Toddlers
⭐Aim for transitioning fully from purees, as well as pureed food from pouches, no later than 12 months of age. As I mentioned before, studies show that babies who are not introduced to different textures by 9 months have less acceptance of foods as they get older.
Limit the use of food pouches to when you are out on the go or for “emergencies”, and try offering it no more than once per day (in case of a real emergency). Ask yourself – “Do I really need to give this, or is it just habit?”
⭐Avoid using pouches to distract your child, or as a safeguard if they don’t finish their meals.
⭐Whenever possible, instead of letting them feed from the pouches, pour the puree into a bowl and feed it with a spoon. This way your kiddo will get into the habit of using their lips around a spoon, which promotes oral motor skill development, and they can also see and interact with the food more closely.
⭐Limit food pouches with the ingredients most likely to get contaminated with heavy metals: Pouches containing pears, apples, sweet potatoes, carrots, and rice are at risk. Based on a study conducted by the Clean Label Project in 2017, 65% of baby food products were found to contain detectable levels of arsenic, 58% contained detectable levels of cadmium, and 36% detectable levels of lead.
⭐Fiber is essential, so look for the food pouches that provide about 3g or more of fiber per serving.
⭐Although pouches containing only vegetables are very rare, try to find them so you can provide your kiddo a taste different from sweet. Beware of the labels that claim to have only vegetables, a number of food industries have misleading food labels.
⭐Do give a read to both sides of the labels. Some food industries do not mention the right amount of ingredients with the dominant flavor on the front label, thus making the customers buy deceptive food products. I really like how Happy Family Organics tell in their label the exact amount of each ingredient present in the food pouch, and even illustrates with the image of each food (Baby To Table doesn’t accept corporate commissions or affiliate revenue. We also don’t do sponsored posts/giveaways. Just in case you are wondering).
⭐Try to buy the food pouches with less than 8g of sugar. For example, looking at the front side of the package of a known organic pouch brand, flavored Apples, Green Beans, Raisins, might convince you that it contains a good amount of green beans. But if you look at its detailed food label, you will find out that it actually contains 13g of sugar. Therefore, fruits are the major ingredients in this pouch, not veggies.
⭐Get into the habit of offering a real fruit or veggie for every time you offer a puree pouch. This will ensure you give the use of a puree pouch a second thought before serving it and that your child is still continually exposed to the real stuff.
The Take-Home Message on Baby Food Pouches
There are times as a parent when we are busy, short on time and/or energy, or have limited access to a kitchen. It’s times like these that pouches and other store-bought baby food are a lifesaver to have around. But, in my view, it’s best to use them in moderation.
Baby food pouches AREN’T the worst thing ever. And it’s not the end of the world if you give pouches to your little one occasionally. Use pouches when you need to. Make the best of it as you are able - like squeezing them out into a bowl, or even just onto a spoon, especially if serving babies, or pairing them with another food. And, when you’re able, don’t use a pouch, but offer the actual food!
Most of all, do your best not to rely on them for every meal, or even daily. And make sure that your baby is fed a variety of foods with different types of textures and flavors to help develop their chewing habits and expand their palate.
Happy Eating and Feeding,
As always, discuss any concerns with your pediatrician. This post and this site is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice. The materials and services provided by this site are for informational purposes only.