Research from the Australian consumer advocacy group Choice has found many snacks marketed for small children have misleading packaging that belies high sugar contents.
Choice reviewed 78 packaged toddler foods, comparing the pack’s imagery and product claims with the nutritional information and ingredients list, and found that 58% contained added sugars that were harmful to children’s health, with the worst offenders containing more than 60% sugar.
Rachel Clemons, the food editor at Choice, said marketing tricks made these products appear healthier than they are. “Many use pictures of healthy fruits or make statements like ‘made with real fruit’ to give a false sense of security to parents.”
While 54% of the packets Choice reviewed featured pictures of whole fruit, the investigation found “often the fruit ingredient is actually a fruit concentrate, paste or puree – used to sweeten the product – and bears little resemblance to the whole fruit from which it’s derived”.
Jane Martin, the executive manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition, said fruit paste is made “by sieving [fruit], boiling it, and removing all its water, until it’s barely more than a pile of sugar”.
“The sugar that is coming from processed fruit is harmful the same way cane sugar is harmful,” Martin said.
In addition to potential health consequences, including tooth decay and unhealthy weight gain, Martin said these packet snacks “are training children’s palates to have a preference for … sweetened food”.
Choice’s research also found many toddler foods were highly processed and offered little in the way of nutritional value.
While food for infants is regulated for sodium content, no regulation exists for sugar content in food, and there are no specific regulations around food marketed for toddlers.
Martin has seen the toddler foods section of the supermarket expand over the past 15 years, buoyed by the industry’s appeal to parents who want to support the healthy development of their child.
But Choice, Martin and Dr Rosemary Stanton, a public health nutritionist and visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales school of medical sciences, all say special foods for this age group aren’t needed.
“This is a marketing exercise, not a health exercise,” Stanton said. “Once you start having separate foods for toddlers, people start thinking they can’t have regular food.
“They’re totally unnecessary. The message is from 12 months onwards they should have family foods not special food.”
Stanton said these products were also expensive, with bad value for their small sizes, and “what you’re paying for is sugar”.
“We need to start young children on a healthier pattern of eating, so that they go to school with healthy eating habits, not thinking they need something that comes out of a packet.”
Stanton, Martin and Choice’s investigation all agreed whole foods were preferable to processed foods.
“My best advice for parents of children going to preschool is to talk to the parents of your child’s friends and all agree you won’t put packets in their lunch, or agree to only do so one day a week,” Stanton said.
Stanton often hears about the difficulty parents experience persuading their children to eat fruit and vegetables. She said that both research and her own experiences suggest that one of the best ways to get children to eat fruit and vegetables is to give children access to a garden – whether it’s a home, community, or school garden, or even pot plants on a balcony – especially if they have a role in it.
“Once they see things growing, they become far more interested in eating it,” Stanton said.
While Choice’s investigation also suggested whole foods like “fresh fruit pieces, veggie sticks, cheese cubes, plain yoghurt or wholemeal toast fingers” are the best snacks for kids, they also provide advice for carers to make an informed choice if they desire the convenience of a pre-packaged snack.
In addition to checking for fruit concentrates, pastes, purees and powders, “aim for products with a small ingredients list … consisting of whole foods wherever possible”, Clemons said.
Choice, Martin and Stanton all believed better government regulation in the area was needed, especially setting higher standards for labelling.
Martin noted that nutrition information panels list all sugars, and do not differentiate naturally occurring sugars in foods from those that have been added by the manufacturer. Added sugars can be disguised under several names.
“The labelling of the food should accurately reflect ingredients and not confuse consumers,” Martin said.