Many food products intended for children in the UK are so nutritionally poor that they should be forced to carry health warnings, according to new report from organic food pioneer Lizzie Vann.
Vann, founder of organic children's food company Organix, said that UK food manufacturers should draw up a code of practice for marketing food to children to ensure that it is healthy and nutritious.
In her report, entitled Carrots or Chemistry? The Future of Food for Children, Vann claimed that current UK legislation means children as young as one year are considered adults by the food industry.
She cited research by Mintel International which shows that nearly nine out of 10 parents feel unable to rely on children's food ranges to provide their children with a healthy diet. In addition, 70% of UK parents with children under five feel unable to say that they know enough about nutrition to feed their children healthily.
Equally as worrying is the evidence to suggest that as many as 60% of young children are eating crisps and savoury snacks on a regular basis, while 55% are eating sweets and chocolates. Processed meals such as chicken nuggets and sausages are consumed by 53% and 50% of children respectively.
Organix' own research into food targeted at children reveals that a third of foods contain colourings, including dyes banned in Scandinavia and the US such as Sunset Yellow which can cause adverse reactions in vulnerable people.
Furthermore, some three quarters of children's foods surveyed contained flavourings with widespread use of flavour enhancers, including monosodium glutamate which is banned for use in baby food. More than one in four of the foods examined contained preservatives and many brands did not display any nutritional information at all. The research also showed high levels of sugar, salt and fat in many children's foods.
Vann said: "The overwhelming drive from food manufacturers and retailers to market children's food on the basis of convenience, price and 'kiddie appeal', has led to a casual approach being taken to nutritional value. This is appalling given that children, more than any of us, need good wholesome foods while their bodies are developing. It is time the government and those involved in producing and marketing children's food take responsibility. This country needs a code of practice, which will transform the way our children eat."
She pointed out that while the baby food industry is subject to strict regulations, these same laws do not apply to young children. "We believe the government should use the baby food industry as a model to introduce comprehensive new legislation, which regulates children's food up to the age of six years. This should include restrictions on the use of additives, maximum allowable levels of pesticide residues and guidelines on minimum levels of nutrients."
Organix' proposed code of practice calls for manufacturers to adopt a number of principles. It suggests that all foods for children should avoid the use of Azo dyes or other colourings that are not proven to be safe for use for all children, as well as the use of artificial flavourings and instead use real food ingredients.
It also calls for the removal from children's food of three groups of preservatives that are not proven to be safe for use by all children and suggests that children's food be made with only high quality cuts of meat.
Finally, it calls for all children's food to be labelled to show at least the top eight nutrients, so that parents can make informed decisions about the food they are buying and for labels to show each ingredient with its percentage content and the overall weight of the product.