Jane Barry explains the pros of cons of pouch food and why they are so popular for busy parents.
Every few years there’s a revolution in children’s food and the way it’s presented. Back in the day, cans were seen as cutting edge in terms of long term storage and convenience – certainly before glass jars took over. Ten years ago ‘organic’ became the new trend as frozen cubes of pureed food found their way into thousands of suburban freezers.
Now, pouch food is all the rage and its popularity shows no signs of waning.
Like most things baby and child related, pouches have their supporters and detractors. It would be true to say that there is a love hate relationship between parents who think they’re great and those who feel pouches are akin to junk food.
Pouches, it must be said, fit into our current busy lives. No matter how highly the human race has evolved, we still need to eat every few hours and for growing kids, this is especially important.
What’s in those pouches, anyway?
They generally consist of vegetables or fruits and combinations of both. Many have a higher concentration of fruit so the contents are more palatable to children.
Pouch food manufacturers push the natural, organic and nothing artificial added angle. So there’s a feel good factor for parents who may feel less than virtuous about offering their child processed food.
Why pouches are fine
We’re not saying that pouch foods are all bad. In fact, they definitely do have their advantages:
- They’re reasonably nutritious. Preparation is regulated, controlled and hygienic.
- Kids tend to like them. This is one of the major reasons why they’re so popular.
- They can be bought at any supermarket at a competitive price.
- They don’t require any preparation. For busy parents, buying pouched food cuts down on shopping and cooking time.
- They’re very convenient, can be transported easily, weigh very little and can be stashed into a nappy bag or handbag for when they’re needed.
- They’re an instant fix for a hungry child who can’t wait to eat.
- They minimise messy eating. The clean up after meals is simple and there is no washing up.
- They occupy a fussy child and can keep them distracted. They can be useful when in the car or out and about in a pram.
- The contents of pouches are easily swallowed, rather than spat out. For parents who are keen to monitor exactly how much their child is eating, pouches can give a clearer indication.
- They promote self feeding and independence. The child controls how much they eat and when to stop because they’re full.
- Pouches fit in with the busyness of family life. Some parents view them as being a more flexible and accommodating way of eating than sitting down to a meal.
- Some parents view as positive the concept of their child being able to suck on a pouch whilst doing something else. This helps to reduce the food battles and stress of sitting down to eat at the dinner table.
But they’re not all good
Ask any Child Health Nurse and they will tell you that pouches are not all good, primarily because they prolong sucking and don’t encourage chewing. This widely held opinion is supported by Kate Di Prima, a Brisbane based Accredited Practicing Dietitian, who says that pouch foods eliminate the whole educational purpose of food for children. “Children learn through touch and being able to see and smell the food they’re about to eat. This just can’t be done when food is disguised in pouches – colours, textures and food variety are all mushed together.”
The problems don’t stop there. “Pouches don’t teach children how to build up to medium and advanced chewing skills and how to move food around in their mouth,” she says.
Problems with pouch food
- It is pureed and semi liquid. This means the child sucks and swallows their meals rather than bites, chews and then swallows. A whole range of oral skills can be bypassed because of this.
- If used all the time, pouches can and do promote aversion to lumps. Babies need to progress steadily from purees to mash, lumps and finger foods. When not challenged to chew their food they often gag and refuse to eat anything other than soft purees.
- They don’t encourage the child to pick up their food and play with it. This is a vital part of learning about food and how to eat it.
- The child can’t see the food in the pouch so they don’t know what they’re eating. This means they can’t and don’t make choices about what to eat and how to eat it.
- Pouches tend to be kilojoule and sugar rich. They don’t include the roughage and fibre which gives the feeling of fullness. Essentially, high concentrations of fructose (sugar) are eaten in a short period of time.
- Pureed food tends to sit on the teeth and doesn’t have the abrasive quality of chewed foods. That means there’s an increased risk of tooth decay, particularly for kids who suck on pouches for long periods of time.
- They mostly come in combinations such as vegetable/fruit combos so individual foods can’t be tasted on their own. The potato morphs into the pumpkin which melds into the squash – you get the idea.
- They don’t help kids to link food with its origins. It’s one thing to see a banana being peeled and mashed and another to see a screw cap turned on a foil packet.
- It’s expensive for what it is. Much of the cost is related to the manufacture and packaging rather than what’s actually in the pouch.
- They contribute to landfill. All those pouches need to go somewhere after the rubbish man collects our bins and drives off.
- Pouch food outsources our children’s eating and meal management to someone else. Portion control, nutritional content and consistency are all effectively managed by some corporation whose primary interest is not your child’s health, but their own budget.
- Toddlers and older kids who suck on pouches often move around when they’re eating: This is a choking and safety risk.
- They take up room for storage and don’t stand up easily, so they’re bulky and not easily stashed in the pantry.
But pouches are so convenient!
It’s fair to ask, when exactly did convenience become the lynchpin on which to make such important decisions? After all, we are talking about our kid’s nutrition. Just because something is easy doesn’t make it right.
In terms of return on investment, home-prepared food is always going to be a superior choice. However, there’s no denying that pouch foods have their place.
Tips for using pouch food
- Try not to use them all the time; ideally a child’s diet is balanced, varied and textured.
- Dispense the food into a bowl rather than giving the whole pouch to your child to suck from. *
- Use once and then throw away what isn’t eaten. Food contents spoil once exposed to the air.
- Read the labels and choose varieties with only one or a couple of fruit/vegetable components.
- Sit your child in a high chair when eating. This is one important way for them to learn about the socialisation of eating.
- View pouch food as an addition to your child’s diet rather than their primary form of nutrition.
*To be fair to the manufacturers this is included in their recommendations, but in the main it doesn’t happen. Perhaps it does in the early days of solid foods being introduced but as kids become more independent, they want to hold onto the pouch and control the flow of what’s going into their mouth.
When pouch food becomes a problem
If your child is refusing to eat foods with any texture or is gagging, then have them checked by a healthcare professional. It’s important to rule out any organic reasons for not being able to chew and swallow. Speech therapists and dieticians with a special interest in paediatrics have the expertise and additional training to provide support and guidance.
It can help to “wean” children off pouches slowly and gradually introduce new and different foods.
The last word on pouch food should probably go to American food writer Michael Pollan, who says, “Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting”.
This article was written by Jane Barry, child health nurse, midwife, freelance parenting consultant,