Babies are being weaned into a high sugar diet from as young as four months old, a leading child health and obesity expert is warning.
A paper prepared by FIZZ (Fighting Sugar in Soft Drinks) for the New Zealand Medical Journal has found some commercial baby foods sold in New Zealand supermarkets contained up to four teaspoons of sugar per serve.
Of 33 single-serve Heinz Wattie's baby foods stocked at an Auckland supermarket, 22 had more than two teaspoons of sugar in them. Of those, 11 contained two to three teaspoons of sugar, 10 contained between three and four teaspoons and one contained four teaspoons.
A single-serve 120g pouch of Heinz Wattie's apple, peach and mango fruit puree contained 16g of sugar - four teaspoons.
The recommended intake of sugar in infants was no more than 5 per cent of energy - less than two teaspoons per day for an average six-month-old, FIZZ said. Less than 3 per cent energy was recommended to prevent dental cavities.
FIZZ founder Dr Gerhard Sundborn, of the University of Auckland's School of Population Health, said commercial baby foods that were high in sugar could cause as much risk of obesity and tooth decay as sugary drinks.
The Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation recommended babies be breast fed to six months old but these foods were being advertised for four-month-olds, he said.
"We are concerned that infants from four months of age are exposed to foods high in concentrated sugar as their first foods," he said.
"Some of the health impacts will be that these infants and babies will develop a palate for sweetness. It will have an impact on their baby teeth that are emerging. It is likely going to have a significant impact on their behaviour."
Sundborn said savoury baby foods were best when weaning children on to solids because they had less sugar. Home-made ones were even better, he said.
Store-bought fruit purees had a higher level of sugar than the fruit itself because the water and fibre were removed so it was more concentrated.
But Heinz Wattie's stressed it was naturally occurring sugar.
"Most fruit and some vegetables - including some first fruit and vegetables recommended by the Ministry of Health - have naturally occurring sugar levels higher than 5g/100g and it would not be sensible to have these 'health warnings'."
Sundborn said another major concern was that the whole Heinz Wattie's range was endorsed by Plunket on the packaging, regardless of the sugar content.
"Parents are trying to do the right thing and they are being misled around what is healthy for their baby.
"Plunket is part of the fabric of NZ society and we can't allow a situation where people begin to question their credibility."
He also questioned the independence of the Infant Nutrition Advisory Group which advised Heinz Wattie's because two of the dieticians received an honorarium for their services and the third worked for Plunket.
Dr Sundborn said he would like to see the New Zealand Ministry of Health establish an Infant Nutrition Advisory Group to prepare guidance about the ingredients of baby foods.
Heinz Wattie's said the company had independent nutritionists advising them on baby food and the advisory group included leading New Zealand experts in child health and nutrition.
"Heinz Wattie's supports healthy food choices for parents and goes out of its way to ensure the nutritional balance of its baby food range which includes fruit, vegetables, savoury meals, breakfast and dessert. Infant foods are strictly regulated under the Foods Standards Code in Australia and New Zealand."
Plunket chief executive Amanda Malu said Plunket supported families to make healthy food choices for their children and encouraged and supported mothers to breastfeed for the first six months.
She said the baby foods that carried the Plunket brand met nutritional guidelines "and we stand by those guidelines".
She said Plunket was aware of the study and had a long-standing arrangement to meet with them to discuss how the groups could work together.
Kristina Paterson of Mothers Helpers, which supports mums with post-natal depression, said she was shocked at the high sugar levels in the pouches.
"You wonder at the amount of children that have actually been affected by that. It's quite amazing," she said.
But Ci Tasi, who was shopping at New World's Victoria Park store last night with baby daughter Ayla, who has just turned 1, said she never bought the Heinz Wattie's pouches because of their high sugar content.
"I use an Australian brand, which is the one with less sugar," she said.