They dominate the baby food section in supermarkets, but could baby food pouches be setting our babies up for future problems with obesity and dental cavities?


Squeezable baby food pouches with plastic spouts are described as a mess-free and easy food alternative for babies ‘on-the-go’, and they now have an extraordinary market share in New Zealand – a 2018 audit of one of New Zealand’s largest supermarket chains indicates that these pouches make up 70 per cent of baby foods available. However, despite their apparent widespread use, there has been virtually no published research done either in New Zealand or internationally on the possible impacts of these pouches on babies’ diets or health.


Associate Professor Anne-Louise Heath from the University of Otago has received a Project grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) to explore what babies are eating in New Zealand once they move from an exclusively milk diet to solid food.


This ‘First Foods NZ’ study will observe 625 babies aged between eight and nine months from Auckland and Dunedin, measuring their nutrient intake, particularly iron levels, and assess the impact of baby food pouches on babies’ growth and dental health.


“The food in baby food pouches is similar to that found in baby food jars and cans, but their delivery method has the potential to markedly change infant nutrition,” says Associate Professor Heath.


“Anecdotal reports suggest babies are often consuming the food straight from the pouch, unsupervised. These super smooth foods are very easy for babies to eat. A 120g pouch is the equivalent of about 22 teaspoons of food. It can take a lot of time to spoon-feed a baby that amount, whereas to squeeze out that amount from a pouch is much easier. We want to find out if pouches result in babies overeating because they’re so easy to eat, and if they are displacing more nutrient-rich foods such as breastmilk from the diet.”


The research team will also track the babies to see if the sweet and acidic foods commonly found in baby food pouches – even some vegetable-based varieties – are causing problems for babies’ erupting teeth.


“Manufacturers in New Zealand are generally super cautious about not adding sugar to baby foods, but natural fruit sugar is still sugar. When these baby foods are consumed by sucking on a pouch, the teeth are bathed in fruit sugars, and probably much more so than if they were to eat whole fruit or to be spoon-fed. This could increase the risk of tooth decay.”


A recent small randomised controlled trial1 suggests that even by seven months of age, 12 percent of New Zealand babies may already be consuming more than the World Health Organisation recommendation of less than five percent of energy intake from free sugars, including fruit purees.


“If you’re only giving your baby a pouch every now and again it will probably make no difference to your baby’s health, whereas if it’s a regular thing it may have risks – or it may have benefits, such as upping your baby’s fruit and vegetable intake. We have to keep an open mind with our research as we don’t know which way it will go.”


As part of the First Foods NZ study, Associate Professor Heath and co-principal investigator Professor Rachael Taylor will also assess the nutrition, health and safety impacts of another method of feeding that’s growing in popularity in New Zealand: baby-led weaning. This technique involves giving babies finger foods to feed themselves from about six months on, instead of parents spoon-feeding them pureed food and slowly progressing to more textured food as the Ministry of Health currently recommends.


Proponents of baby-led weaning see it as a healthier, more convenient, and less stressful way of feeding babies, however some health professionals have raised concerns about the potential increased risk of iron deficiency, slower weight gain, and choking.


HRC acting chief executive Dr Vernon Choy says all parents want to know what the safest and best way is to feed their babies.


“There is so little research on baby food pouches or baby-led weaning that the Ministry of Health is currently unable to advise parents on their use. This puts health professionals in a difficult position because they are forced to form an educated opinion based on little-to-no evidence. They then have to decide if they’re going to share that opinion or leave parents to perhaps seek out other sources like social media for advice,” says Dr Choy.


“This research will provide some much-needed evidence to help the Ministry of Health update their advice to Plunket and other Well-Child providers on whether, and how, parents should use these relatively new methods of baby feeding.”


The HRC has awarded $60.3 million in funding for 53 research projects, including Pacific health and Rangahau Maori projects. These grants form part of the HRC’s $81 million investment in new research projects and programmes announced today by Minister Megan Woods.


See below for the full list of 2019 HRC Project and Pacific Project grant recipients. To read lay summaries of these Projects, go to and filter for ‘Researcher Initiated Proposals’, ‘Projects’ and ‘2019’.


1 Williams Erickson L, Taylor R, Haszard J, Fleming E, Daniels L, Morison B, Leong C, Fangupo L, Wheeler B, Taylor B, Te Morenga L, McLean R, Heath A. Impact of a modified version of Baby Led Weaning on infant food and nutrient intakes: the BLISS randomized controlled trial. Nutrients 2018;10:740.


2019 Project grants – full list


Dr Philip Adamson, University of Otago

Duration of Dual Antiplatelet Therapy in Acute Coronary Syndrome (DUAL-ACS)

48 months, $1,549,999


Professor Richard Beasley, Medical Research Institute of New Zealand

Two RCTs of salbutamol therapy in exacerbations of asthma in adults

36 months, $578,713


Dr Peter Bergin, Auckland District Health Board

International case-control study of Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy

48 months, $1,190,647


Professor David Bilkey, University of Otago

A novel biomarker for preclinical drug development in schizophrenia

24 months, $489,282


Professor Steven Dakin, The University of Auckland

Measuring visual field loss in glaucoma using involuntary eye movements

36 months, $1,184,344


Professor Nicola Dalbeth, The University of Auckland

Transitions to Gout Research (TIGER) study

36 months, $1,196,151


Dr Martin de Bock, University of Otago

Automated insulin delivery for Type 1 diabetes utilising open source technology

36 months, $1,317,623


Professor Sarah Derrett, University of Otago

Prospective Outcomes of Injury Study: 10 years on (POIS-10)

36 months, $1,188,041


Professor Robert Doughty, The University of Auckland

Biomarker-guided secondary prevention post-acute coronary syndromes: An RCT

36 months, $1,596,636


Professor Jeroen Douwes, Massey University

Biodiversity and microbiota: a novel pathway to allergy and asthma prevention

48 months, $1,199,961


Professor Michelle Glass, University of Otago

Characterisation of synthetic cannabinoid signalling bias and toxicity

36 months, $1,172,581


Associate Professor Simon Hales, University of Otago

Climate change, extreme rainfall events and enteric disease outbreaks

36 months, $1,190,579


Professor Bob Hancox, University of Otago

A Randomised Controlled Trial of beta-blockers in COPD

60 months, $1,439,384


Associate Professor Michael Hay, The University of Auckland

Doubling down on DNA-PK: Radiosensitisers for head & neck cancer

36 months, $1,199,999


Associate Professor Anne-Louise Heath, University of Otago

Novel methods of infant feeding in New Zealand – cause for concern or optimism?

36 months, $1,185,359


Professor Janet Hoek, University of Otago

Developing optimal strategies to support smoking cessation among RYO users

36 months, $1,195,934


Associate Professor Julia Horsfield, University of Otago

A novel genetic mechanism in Acute Myeloid Leukaemia

36 months, $1,177,919


Associate Professor Stephanie Hughes, University of Otago

Dissecting the role of glial lysosome function in neurodegeneration

36 months, $1,199,417


Dr Karl Iremonger, University of Otago

A neural circuit to suppress stress in motherhood

36 months, $1,167,222


Dr Anne-Marie Jackson, University of Otago

Tangaroa Ara Rau: Māori water safety programme for whānau

36 months, $1,192,263


Dr Stephen Jamieson, The University of Auckland

Precision treatment of head and neck cancer with evofosfamide

36 months, $1,199,967


Mrs Bernadette Jones, University of Otago

Te Ao Mārama: Disability perspectives of tāngata whaikaha Māori

36 months, $1,186,338


Professor Andrew Jull, The University of Auckland

Exercise or hypochlorous acid for venous leg ulcer healing: Factorial4VLU trial

36 months, $1,402,941


Professor Kurt Krause, University of Otago

New drugs for the post-antibiotic era by targeting glutamate racemase

36 months, $1,199,914


Professor Beverley Lawton,

Victoria University of Wellington Whānau Manaaki: Methamphetamines- a strength- based community approach

36 months, $ 1,187,031


Dr Alex Macmillan, University of Otago

Health and equity impacts of Te Ara Mua Future Streets

30 months, $1,185,793


Associate Professor Sandra Mandic, University of Otago

Built Environment and Active Transport to School: BEATS natural experiment

36 months, $1,197,487


Dr Shay McGuinness, Medical Research Institute of New Zealand

BLING III – Phase III RCT of continuous β-lactam infusion in the critically ill

60 months, $1,195,807


Professor Mark McKeage, The University of Auckland

Do concomitant medicines impede safe and effective lung cancer treatment in NZ?

36 months, $1,194,776


Professor Dr Neil McNaughton, University of Otago

Do hippocampus, insula and amygdala contribute to an anxiety syndrome biomarker?

36 months, $ 1,090,630


Dr Kimberley Mellor, The University of Auckland

Glycotoxicity in the diabetic heart – novel treatment targets

36 months, $1,148,222


Professor Tony Merriman, University of Otago

Addressing clinical questions in gout using genetic data

36 months, $1,198,120


Associate Professor Brian Monk, University of Otago

Readying next-generation antifungals for drug development

36 months, $1,199,967


Dr Garry Nixon, University of Otago

A rural-urban classification for NZ health research and policy

30 months, $ 943,443


Professor Gail Pacheco, Auckland University of Technology

Ethnic differences in the uptake of healthcare services: A microanalysis

36 months, $ 1,088,386


Professor Dr Suetonia Palmer, University of Otago

Serum phosphate to improve outcomes for dialysis patients: The PHOSPHATE trial

60 months, $ 1,266,603


Professor Dr Suetonia Palmer, University of Otago

Teaching to improve health outcomes for peritoneal dialysis: The TEACH-PD trial

60 months, $ 1,439,326


Associate Professor Rachael Parke, Medical Research Institute of New Zealand

Targeted therapeutic mild hypercapnia after resuscitated cardiac arrest

48 months, $1,199,994


Professor Emily Parker, Victoria University of Wellington

Tackling antimicrobial resistance

36 months, $1,180,238


Dr Anna Pilbrow, University of Otago

A precision medicine approach to improving heart disease outcomes

36 months, $1,193,680


Professor John Reynolds, University of Otago

Manipulating rewards to treat maladaptive brain disorders: focus on tinnitus

36 months, $1,192,994


Professor Nicola Starkey, University of Waikato

Patterns of recovery from concussion in children and adolescents

36 months, $1,197,414


Professor Rachael Taylor, University of Otago

Does a brief sleep intervention in infancy have long-term health benefits?

36 months, $1,190,308


Dr Martin Than, Canterbury District Health Board

ICare-FASTER Improving care by FAster risk-STratification in the EmeRgency dept.

36 months, $1,152,385


Dr James Ussher, University of Otago

The role of microbial viability in regulating MAIT cell activation

36 months, $1,191,634


Professor Mark Vickers, The University of Auckland

Circulating miRNAs in maternal blood as biomarkers for preterm birth

36 months, $ 1,142,110


Associate Professor Logan Walker, University of Otago

Impact of germline copy number variation on endometrial cancer risk

36 months, $1,145,197


Dr Emma Wyeth, University of Otago

POIS-10 Māori: Outcomes and experiences in the decade following injury

36 months, $1,191,067


Dr Paul Young, Medical Research Institute of New Zealand

Targeted Early Activity and Mobilisation in the ICU (the TEAM study)

48 months, $1,011,247


2019 Pacific Project grants – full list


Dr Allamanda Faatoese, University of Otago

Environmental effects on cardiometabolic biomarkers in Pacific peoples

36 months, $ 594,804


Professor Steven Ratuva, University of Canterbury

Enrichment of community health through targeted social protection strategies

36 months, $588,534


Dr Gerhard Sundborn, The University of Auckland

Understanding scabies prevalence to improve the health of Pasifika/Māori kids

36 months, $594,346


Dr Jemaima Tiatia-Seath, The University of Auckland

Climate change and mental wellbeing: The impacts on Pacific peoples

36 months, $589,691


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