Baby and toddler foods – not as healthy as we’d hope

A recent paper published by Charlene Elliott of the University of Calgary in the Journal of Public Health evaluated the salt and sugar contents in baby and toddler foods; the results are a bit disturbing. While I think most people would expect baby food to be reasonably healthy, it turns out that it’s probably just as bad as processed adult foods.I’d been meaning for a while to write something about the salt contents in adult foods. Specifically, when I look at different brands for the same product (e.g. canned kidney beans), I’ve seen salt contents varying by as much as two orders of magnitude. Since the versions with low salt (or even better no added salt) taste just as good to me, I have to conclude that some manufacturers are adding far too much unnecessary salt. It’s not uncommon for some food products to contain enough salt that you’d be approaching or exceeding the recommended salt allowance from a single item. While I’m now in the habit of checking the salt content of the foods that I buy, it often isn’t straightforward to determine the salt content, since different brands commonly use different serving sizes (a practice that I suspect is deliberate on the part of those with high amounts of “bad” things such as salt in their products).

The results of Charlene Elliott’s study show that, as the parent of a toddler and a newborn, it is equally important to be looking at the ingredients and nutritional information for baby and toddler foods.

The study itself was fairly straightforward. Foods from the “baby and toddler” section of grocery stores, department stores and drug stores were evaluated for their salt and sugar contents. Additionally, for 4 types of products (toddler cereal bars, cookies/biscuits, fruit snacks and yogurts), a comparison was made with the salt and sugar contents of corresponding “adult” products. Based on various nutritional recommendations, products with sodium less than 130 mg per serving were classified as “acceptable” while those with greater than 260 mg per serving were classified as “high sodium” (presumably using the serving size indicated on the packaging, which as I mentioned earlier can be a bit inconsistent). Products for which sugar provided more than 20% of the total calories were considered to be of poor nutritional quality. While these criteria may not be perfect, particularly given the variation in reported serving sizes (a more quantitative assessment would probably involve using food intake rates from dietary studies instead of reported serving sizes), they’re reasonable for a screening-level study.

Over 12% of the products evaluated were identified as having a high level of sodium, including 11 products with more than 400 mg of sodium per serving. These products were all marketed for toddlers; none of the baby foods had high sodium. Over half of the products evaluated had more than 20% of their calories coming from sugar, and many of these were marketed as baby foods.

The comparison with corresponding adult foods indicated that, perhaps surprisingly, the baby/toddler foods were at least as bad, and in many cases worse, than adult foods when it came to salt and sugar.

This study shows the importance of looking at the nutritional information and ingredients for baby and toddler food, as well as adult food. While ideally processed foods should be limited in anyone’s diet, particularly the diet of babies and toddlers, realistically sometimes it’s difficult to avoid them, particularly when away from home. However, we can make sure we avoid particularly unhealthy products.

I’d like to see companies take more responsibility for the nutritional status of their products. However, so far they don’t, for the most part, seem willing to do this. I’m not sure government regulation is the answer, though it may be the most effective way to reduce salt and sugar in foods – but I won’t hold my breath waiting for it to happen. The best approach may be if large numbers of people start speaking with their wallets – if enough people are only buying low salt and low sugar brands, eventually the market will drive other companies to make their products healthier. That would require more people to actually think about nutritional value when they make purchases, though.

Elliott, C. (2010). Sweet and salty: nutritional content and analysis of baby and toddler foods Journal of Public Health DOI: 10.1093/pubmed/fdq037

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