A decade after they hit the shelves, billed as a mess-free portable option for on-the-go families, the puree-filled packages now make up more than a quarter of baby food sales in the United States. Nearly a third of 2-year-olds' packed lunches at day care contain at least one pouch, one recent University of Texas Austin study found, and some toddlers are getting more than half of their midday calories in pouch form.
That concerns child health experts who say that while the pouches are fine as an occasional snack, their overuse could potentially breed poor eating habits and stunt development of feeding skills and motor coordination at a critical stage of life.
"Many of us in the medical field have a love-hate relationship with pouches," says Kara Larson, a speech language pathologist and feeding specialist at Boston Children's Hospital. "They're convenient and travel well and are often a better choice than cookies or chips. But parents need to use them in moderation."
For infants and toddlers, Larson says, eating is an important learning experience. Scraping a spoon across a bowl and lifting it to the mouth develops motor coordination. Plucking cut-up bits of banana from a high-chair tray develops grasping skills. And unlike sucking from a pouch -- which requires a front-to-back tongue motion -- chewing soft foods requires a child to develop side-to-side tongue motions needed for eating and speech later in life.
"If children are just sucking from a pouch all the time, we worry that some of that tactile experience with food might be lost," she says.
Parents often like pouches for their wide variety of seemingly healthy flavors, ranging from quinoa and kale mixtures to organic vegetable blends. But experts warn that the actual taste of those vegetables and grains is often masked with sugar, which could pose dental problems and breed picky eaters.
"Children at this age are developing taste preferences that will follow them throughout life," says Courtney Byrd-Williams, PhD, a behavioral scientist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Austin, TX. "If they are used to eating overly sweet fruit or aren't exposed to plain vegetables, they are less likely to like them as adults."
She also worries that because pouches are far easier to suck down quickly, they might encourage children to keep eating, even when they're already full -- a bad habit that could cause problems in adulthood.
All that said, Larson and Byrd-Williams see no harm in offering babies 6 months or older and toddlers an occasional pouch -- in the grocery store, in the car, at big brother's soccer game -- when sitting down for a snack isn't practical. Just don't exceed one or two pouches per day, look for low-sugar/high-fiber options, and don't let convenience trump health.
"When we consider what convenience food has done to adult health, there are plenty of reasons to pause before passing your child another pouch," Byrd-Williams says.
By the Numbers
28%: Percentage of day-care lunches for children 6 months to 3 years old that contain at least one pouch; 10% contain two or more pouches. In 4%, half of lunchtime calories came from pouches.
0: Number of packed-lunch pouches that contained purely vegetables.
12 grams: Average amount of sugar in a single pouch.
25%: Percentage of the total baby food market made up of pouches in 2018, according to Nielsen Total Food View.