A closer look at fruit pouches – are they healthy for children?

A parent spoon feeding a baby

Fruit pouches are easy to use and many have health claims on the packet. But are they as healthy as they claim, and how often should babies, toddlers and young children eat them?

Mélanie Marks Purnode: I’m a mum of 2 young children and have often given them fruit pouches, especially when we are on the go as they are convenient and seem a healthy option.

I also see my friends giving them to their children as part of their daily snack. Why wouldn’t they? Many fruit pouches claim there is no added sugar, they’re 100% fruit, organic, made for children and even say the age the pouch is appropriate for; some for as young as 4 months.

So when I started seeing news stories about them not being as healthy as we’ve been led to believe, I talked to Raffaella, one of the nutritionists at World Cancer Research Fund, to find out the truth about fruit pouches.

Many fruit pouches contain “no added sugar”. What does this mean, as sugar is still listed on the nutrition label?

Raffaella: When you see “no added sugar”, this means no sugar has been added to the fruit pouch when it was made in the factory (added sugars include sugars like honey and words ending in -ose such as glucose, sucrose and fructose). So why is sugar still listed on the nutrition label? Well, even though the pouch has no sugar added, the fruit itself has naturally occurring sugar which will add to the “total sugar” amount listed on the label.

Is the sugar in fruit pouches healthy?

The sugar in fruit is not bad for us, but it’s better for our health when the sugar is eaten as part of a whole fruit rather than in a fruit pouch. Why is that? Well, when fruit is blended into a puree, the naturally occurring sugars from the fruit get released from the cell structure and become what we call “free sugars”. Free sugars are the types of sugar we should be limiting because having them often and in large amounts can cause tooth decay and weight gain over time.

Often the amount of fruit in a pouch is a lot more than in a whole piece of fruit, which may seem like a good thing, but the amount of sugar in 1 pouch can also be a lot more than in a whole fruit. Plus, blending fruit into puree removes a lot of fibre, which we know is important for digestion and can reduce the risk of bowel cancer.

What about vegetable-based pouches? Similar to fruit, vegetables also contain naturally occurring sugars, which become free sugars when blended into a puree. While they are generally a better option than fruit, vegetable-based pouches often use sweeter vegetables such as sweet potato, carrots and peas.

How can companies market fruit pouches as healthy?

Companies often use a “health halo”to market fruit pouches, making claims like “100% fruit”, “1 or more of your 5 A DAY”, “contains no added sugar” and “organic”. This makes them look healthy, right? But in reality, these pouches can contain a lot of free sugar.

For children over 2 years old, the government recommends limiting free sugar to 5% of daily energy intake – around 12.5g for girls and 14g for boys aged 2–3 years old. Despite this, research by the British Dental Association revealed that around 60% of pouches exceeded the daily free sugar limit for 2–3-year-olds in 2 pouches, with another 12% of products exceeding the limit in a single pouch. And, surprisingly, the research showed that fruit pouches can have up to 17.3g of sugar (around 5 teaspoons) – which is more than 100ml of cola (around 10.6g)!

These findings highlight that pouches aren’t as healthy as they appear, potentially misleading parents looking for nutritious snacks for their children.

Are organic fruit pouches any healthier?

Whether the fruit is organic or not, the naturally occurring sugars in the fruit become “free sugars”, so they aren’t any healthier than non-organic ones. It may look appealing, but organic is usually more expensive too and doesn’t offer any extra nutritional benefits.

Are fruit pouches cheaper?

While fruit pouches may appear budget-friendly at around 50p to £1.50 per pouch, the costs add up when you consider that a banana costs around 18p and an apple around 25p, which is half the price or even less.

Should I be concerned about children sucking the pouch?

When children suck puree out through the straw, the free sugars can stay on the teeth. This can cause tooth decay over time. Tooth decay is the most common reason for hospital admissions in young children in the UK, so reducing the amount of free sugar your children have, especially through a straw, is important.

If you use fruit pouches, squeeze the contents into a bowl or on to a spoon – some pouches now mention this on the packaging.

Should I give fruit pouches a lot – and if not, what is a good alternative?

A child sat on his mothers's lap eating cucumber

Fruit pouches are OK once in a while, especially when you’re busy and need a quick snack for your child. But it’s best to offer other snacks most of the time. If you do choose pouches, opt for ones that don’t only have fruit but also non-sweet vegetables, as well as pulses (like chickpeas and lentils) or yoghurt.

If you want ideas for an alternative to pouches, giving your children whole fruit and vegetables is a great one. This could include a tangerine, apple, banana and vegetable sticks like carrots, peppers and cucumbers. Eating fruit and vegetables whole makes sure your child gets the fibre they need too.

If they don’t like eating fruit and vegetables whole, then it is worth investing a little extra time into preparation, such as chopping them up in creative ways or making fruit and vegetable kebabs. Or try having savoury snacks readily available like houmous, yoghurt, rice cakes, homemade unsalted popcorn and boiled eggs.

Mélanie Marks Purnode: I hope this information will help parents like me understand more about fruit pouches and the “health halo” that goes with them. Personally, I’ve started skipping the pouches and instead bringing a banana or apple with me when I’m out and about with my children. I pop them into a little lunch bag so they don’t bruise and then it’s just as easy to carry around, healthier and usually costs less too.

>> Need inspiration for school snacks? Get ideas in our blog on healthy ideas for school lunchboxes

>> Read about Making healthy eating fun for children