According to the CEO of the emerging brand Square Baby, there is “not an added sugar problem” in the baby food industry, but there is a problem with too much sugar – most of which comes from fruit and, therefore, does not count as ‘added sugar’ for labeling purposes on the Nutrition Facts panel.
Katie Thomson, who co-founded Square Baby two years ago and is a registered dietitian, shares in this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts Podcast what she believes is a better approach for regulating and reducing sugar in infant and baby food. She also shares how Square Baby is helping to instill in children a lifelong love of vegetables and nutrient-rich foods – including and beyond fruit –through its unique approach to product formulation and by joining the Partnership for a Healthier America’s Shaping Early Palates initiative.
[Editor’s Note: Never miss another episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts Podcast – subscribe on iTunes.]
‘Most of the meals were really unbalanced’
Thomson explains her quest to reduce the amount of total sugar and improve the overall nutritional profile of products in the baby food aisle began as a dream 12 years ago when she couldn’t baby food options for her first child that met her standards.
At that time, she said, “most of the meals were really unbalanced,” and she was frustrated by having to give her baby bites from different jars in order to give him the nutrition he needed.
“I thought there needs to be a better solution for parents. There needs to be more transparency, less misleading marketing and I knew I could do a better job,” she said.
Ten years after first dreaming up the square meal system, and two years ago, Thomson launched Square Baby into a competitive category that she acknowledges has come a long way since her son was an infant. But she says the segment still has a long way to go as many products and brands continue to rely heavily on fruit to make them more appealing.
“I continue to see really, really fruit heavy purees,” she said.
By contrast, Square Baby offers meals that balance vegetables, fruit, whole grains and protein so that any three offerings combined will meet the daily nutritional needs of an 8- to 12-month-old.
Thomson also laments that the baby food segment is filled with marketing that she says misleads consumers to think they are buying products that are veggie-forward or high in healthy fats, but which actually lead with fruit purees.
“I understand from a marketing perspective why companies drive towards certain words and highlight veggies or highlight avocado, but if you don’t deliver, then you’re really doing a disservice to your customer,” she said.
This is one reason why Square Baby is transparent about the ingredients in its products and "will never market them as anything other than what they are," she added.
‘We are guiding our little early palates to start to crave sweet more and more’
Within this framework, Thomson said that the baby food aisle has a massive sugar problem, but she worries that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s recent recommendation to limit all added sugar for children under 2 years doesn’t adequately address it.
“As far as [added] sugar goes, certainly we do not have a problem in the baby food industry. ... I don't think I've ever come across a product where they've added straight sugar or high fructose corn syrup to a baby food," she said.
But, she added, so much fruit and concentrated fruit juice is added that "we are guiding our little early palates to start to crave sweet, more and more, we kind of created this little sugar monster that is really, really difficult to to turn around."
On that note, she said she would like to see the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee make recommendations around total sugar intake – not just added sugar – for children under 2 years old.
Beyond that she would like to see the much-needed Dietary Guidelines for children younger than 2 years made more accessible for mainstream Americans.
Teaming with Partnership for a Healthier America
To help address what Thomson sees as persistent problems in the baby food aisle and with nutrition communication, she joined the Partnership for a Healthier America’s Shaping Early Palates initiative, which brings together early childhood educators, baby food makers and other stakeholders to disrupt the marketplace and train young children to accept and enjoy the savory and bitter flavors of vegetables.
Thomson said that the committee is still identifying how best to focus its collective resources to maximize the initiative’s impact, but that the long-term potential for the initiative is “endless.”
Joining the PHA initiative is not the only way that Square Baby is helping to improve the next generations’ nutrition – it also donates money to Feeding America through its Good Feeds platform, which donates 10 meals for every social media post shared with the company’s handle, @squarebabyfood, and the hashtag #goodfeeds.
The company hopes to increase its impact through this campaign as it continues to expand its distribution, which Thomson said is currently limited to eight states on West Coast but which she hopes to expand nationally by the first quarter of 2021. From there, she said she hopes to expand the brand beyond infant purees – all which will be possible thanks in part to the recent closure of the brand’s seed round.
FOOD FOR KIDS 2020 virtual summit
Are you interested in what we feed our kids... and keen to learn more about nutritional advice for the crucial first 1,000 days (from conception to 24 months)?