Many toddler foods found to be “junk”
Manufacturers of toddler foods are potentially misleading Australian parents by marketing their products as “healthy” as a new study finds that many products specifically formulated for young children are simply ultra-processed junk foods.
In the first comprehensive national audit of toddler foods and milk drinks in Australia, PhD student Jennifer McCann from Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition found around 80 percent of packaged toddler food products were sweetened snack foods and 85 percent were ultra-processed.
McCann says the findings are concerning as many parents assume food made especially for toddlers is nutritious and suitable to eat on a regular basis as part of a healthy diet: “This tells us that packaged toddler foods should only be eaten occasionally, if at all,” she says.
For her study, McCann looked at 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 had added sugars in the form of fruit pastes, purees or concentrates.
“Only 10 percent of the snack foods aligned with the Australian Dietary Guidelines,” McCann says. “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 studied were highly sweetened, and some had nearly twice the sugar content per 100ml of soft drink, McCann says.
“There is evidence linking high intakes of ultra-processed foods in children to cardio-metabolic risks, asthma and obesity as well as lower overall diet quality,” she says.
“Most of the products in our study were labelled with messages and claims that these foods are healthy and sometimes even necessary. This is very concerning, as the packaging is designed to give consumers a false sense of the healthiness of these foods.”
Toddlers need a variety of foods to supply essential nutrients, and they also need different tastes and textures to prepare them for a varied diet as they grow. McCann says that young children should be eating family meals and fresh, unprocessed or minimally processed foods to achieve their nutrient and food-based needs.
“We encourage consumers to carefully read product labels and ingredient lists when buying food for their children and question the on-pack claims and marketing of these products,” she says. “Hopefully, this new understanding and awareness will help deliver a positive and healthy change within this retail market.”