Study finds many toddler foods could be classified as junk food

Media release

19 January 2021

Manufacturers of toddler foods are potentially misleading Australian parents by marketing their products as 'healthy' as a new study shows 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's Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) found around 80 per cent of packaged food products were sweetened snack foods and 85 per cent were ultra-processed.

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 tells us that packaged toddler foods should only be eaten occasionally, if at all," Ms McCann said.

For her study, Ms 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 per cent of the snack foods aligned with the Australian Dietary Guidelines," Ms McCann said.

"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.

"There is recent evidence linking high intakes of ultra-processed foods in young children to cardiometabolic risks, asthma, overweight and obesity as well as lower overall diet quality.

"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.

"They 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.

"Hopefully, this new understanding and awareness will help deliver a positive and healthy change within this retail market," Ms McCann said.

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Media release Faculty of Health, School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN)