More than half of all food products targeted to toddlers and babies in grocery stores in Canada have too many calories coming from sugar, according to a study carried out by researchers at the University of Calgary, Canada. “Excessive sugar” means that over 20% of the calories come from just sugar or a sugar variant, such as corn syrup. The study has been published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Public Health.

The study was funded by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest Canada.

Researchers looked at sugar and sodium levels in 186 food products specifically targeted at babies and toddlers. They also analyzed 4 categories of baby/toddler foods against their adult equivalents to reveal whether a ‘halo effect’ attributed to baby/toddler food is warranted.

Prof. Charlene Elliott, team leader, said:

There is a presumed halo effect around baby and toddler foods because people expect these foods to be held to a higher standard. Yet this is not necessarily the case.

The research aimed to draw attention to the new, and expanding category of toddler foods available in the supermarket, such as fruit snacks, cereal bars, desserts, and cookies, as well as baby food products outside of simple purees of fruits and vegetables (classified as pure foods).

The study looked at:

  • Pureed dinners and desserts
  • Toddler entrees and dinners
  • Snacks, including biscuits, cookies, fruit snacks, snack bars and yogurts
  • Some cereals

The study did not look at:

  • Simple purees of fruits and vegetables
  • Juices
  • Beverages
  • Infant formulas
  • Infant cereals designed to be mixed with breast milk or water

Comparisons were made between four types of toddler food products:

  • Toddler cereal bars
  • Cookies/biscuits
  • Fruit snacks
  • Yogurt – and their adult equivalents

The researchers found that baby/toddler foods were not nutritionally better than the equivalent adult foods when it came to sugar. In fact, sometimes they fared worse.

Prof. Elliot explained:

Assessing sugar levels in baby and toddler foods is challenging because there is currently no universally accepted standard. While the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that adults should limit their consumption of added sugars to six teaspoons a day for women and nine teaspoons a day for men, these recommendations do not extend to children or toddlers. In fact, the AHA has not published specific ‘added sugar’ recommendations for children or toddlers – even though high sugar foods are deliberately created for them. Health Canada, similarly, offers no direct recommendations – or cautions – regarding sugar intake or upper limits on the intake of added sugar for very young children, or for toddlers, per se.

Given this, the study used established guidelines that suggest foods are of inferior nutritional quality if over 20% of their calories derive from sugar. 53% of the products tested met these criteria. 40% of products listed sugar – or some variant, such as corn syrup, cane syrup, brown sugar, or dextrose) – in the first four ingredients on the label. 19% listed sugar (or some variant) as either the 1st or 2nd ingredient. Prof. Elliot said:

This draws attention to the, perhaps obvious, need to carefully examine the ingredient list. While some products derive their sugar content from naturally occurring fruit sugars, many products also contain added sugars. It remains fair to ask why it is necessary to add sugar to these baby or toddler products in the first place.

The study contained baby food desserts and ‘premium organic cookies’ for toddlers – products that would be target adult tastes, as there is no nutritional reason that babies should complete their meals with Banana Coconut Cream Dessert puree or cookies, organic or otherwise. Equally significant is the way such products steer our youngest consumers down the wrong path in terms of reinforcing tastes for sweet foods.

Sweet and salty: nutritional content and analysis of baby and toddler foods
Charlene Elliott
Journal of Public Health, doi:10.1093/pubmed/fdq037

Written by Christian Nordqvist