Life Wellbeing ‘Specially formulated’ foods for toddlers? Most of it is junk food, says new research

‘Specially formulated’ foods for toddlers? Most of it is junk food, says new research

A first-time Australian audit of toddler foods found many claim to be healthy, while heavy on sugar and ultra-processed ingredients. Photo: Getty
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Pack your bags, mum and dad: we’re going on a guilt trip. Not all of you – just those who buy ‘specially formulated’ packaged toddler foods off the supermarket shelves.

A first-time audit of toddler foods found that, most of the time, you’re essentially buying junk – heavy on sugar and ultra-processed ingredients. All prettily packaged for kiddies aged one to three years.

The Deakin University researchers found that manufacturers routinely label these products as ‘healthy’ – no matter that around 80 per cent of these packaged food products were sweetened snack foods and 85 per cent were ultra-processed.

If you were wondering, then, when is it that kids start eating in such a way that sets them up for a life of bad food choices, a roly-poly body and chronic illness… wonder no more.

It begins around the time they start walking. If not earlier.

There are no specific regulations for toddler products

In February 2020, The New Daily reported that some baby formula had twice as much sugar as soft drink.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) are now reviewing infant formula guidelines – “to ensure regulation of infant formula is clear and reflects the latest scientific evidence”.

The regulatory body notes on its website that a review of ‘follow-on formula’ (given to babies from six to more than 12 months of age) will be considered “in later projects.”

However, FSANZ advises that toddler milks (designed for children 1–3 years) “will not be reviewed in these projects.”

In fact, “there are no specific regulations for toddler food,” according to Ms Jennifer McCann, co-author of the new study – and a lecturer and PhD candidate at Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition.

Ms McCann said the researchers, using their audit as a prod, “are trying to get some regulations around these foods.”

How did the audit work?

Ms McCann visited Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and IGA supermarkets and used her phone camera to take photographs of all labelling. This meant checking the fridges for toddler yogurts and frozen meals.

In instances where there was too little information, she contacted manufacturers, asking for a breakdown of ingredients. Her survey also took in chemists

Overall, Ms McCann investigated 154 toddler-specific foods and 32 toddler milk products readily available in Australian supermarkets and chemists.

Most of the foods “were highly processed sweetened fruit and cereal bars, extruded puffs and ready-made frozen meals.”

Many products had added sugars, “in the form of fruit pastes, purees or concentrates.”

Only 10 per cent of the snack foods aligned with the Australian Dietary Guidelines, Ms McCann said.

The findings and why they matter

Ms McCann said the findings, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, were concerning “because many parents assume that food made especially for young children is nutritious and suitable to eat on a regular basis as part of a healthy diet.”

This research makes clear that “packaged toddler foods should only be eaten occasionally, if at all.”

  • Just over half included one of the five food groups from the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, but nearly half of these were also ultra-processed.
  • The remaining snack foods were discretionary or occasional foods.
  • Most of the milk products were highly sweetened and some had nearly twice the sugar content per 100ml of soft drink.
  • Most of the products in the study were labelled with messages and claims that these foods are healthy and sometimes even
  • The packaging is designed to give consumers a false sense of the healthiness of these foods.

There’s sound evidence linking high intakes of ultra-processed foods in young children to cardio-metabolic risks, asthma, overweight and obesity as well as lower overall diet quality.

For more information about the findings, see here.

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