DUBAI, UAE: Researchers from the Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Dubai have recently examined the amount and type of free dietary sugars found in commercially available infant formula in the UAE. They found that almost a third contained detectable sugar levels and that the sugar content was often not clearly specified on the label. Additionally, they reported that parents were often unaware of the high sugar content in their baby’s food, unintentionally putting their children at an increased risk of developing dental caries as well as other health conditions, such as diabetes and obesity.
Early childhood caries is a global health problem that affects almost half of preschool children. In the UAE, early childhood caries is the most common disease in children. It is well established that free sugars are chiefly responsible for the development of dental caries. Yet, baby products often contain unnecessary sugar, thus exposing them to the risks associated with sweetened foods and beverages.
The impetus of the research was the suspicion of infant formula causing severe early childhood caries in a 2-year-old boy brought to the Dubai Dental Hospital. “We did expect some sugar in the infant formula. We just wanted to prove it by laboratory analysis,” first author Dr Rawan Awad, an assistant professor of paediatric dentistry at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in Boston in the US, said in a press release.
In the study, the researchers assessed the levels of glucose, fructose and sucrose in 71 brands of infant formula sold in the UAE for children aged 1 to 3 years old. After analysing the data, they found that at least 23 samples contained detectable sugar levels. Additionally, the sugars in ten of the samples ranged between 5.68% and 27.06%, thus surpassing 5.0% of total energy intake. The World Health Organization recommends that less than 10% of total energy intake should come from sugar and states that a further reduction to below 5% could provide additional health benefits.
The researchers also reported that all the infant formula packages stated the carbohydrate levels, but only a few indicated the added sugar content on the labels.
Considering the findings, the researchers suggested that infant formula may be contributing to a high rate of caries in young children in the UAE. “This is alarming because it’s widely known that human milk and breastfeeding are considered the ideal form of infant feeding, especially during the first six months of life, as it provides many benefits for the child’s well-being,” Dr Awad stated.
Hidden sugar in infant formula
According to the study, sugar content is often listed under complex names in infant formula, making it difficult for parents to identify it. “When you call a sugar a big, scientific name, no one knows about it, except those who are in chemistry and science,” said Prof. Manal al-Halabi, dean of the university’s Hamdan Bin Mohammed College of Dental Medicine.
In light of the findings, the researchers called for tighter regulations on the labelling of infant formula.
The study, titled “Sugar content in infant formula: Accuracy of labeling and conformity to guidelines”, was published online on 4 July 2022 in the International Journal of Paediatric Dentistry, ahead of inclusion in an issue.