Are packaged toddler foods just ‘junk food’ in disguise?

Anyone who has taken a look at the baby aisle at the supermarket recently will have noticed that there is now a wide range of foods available that are marketed specifically for toddlers (12-36 months). 

In the first comprehensive national audit of toddler specific foods readily available in supermarkets and chemists in Australia, Lecturer and PhD student, Jennifer McCann from Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) found 154 foods marketed specifically for the toddler age range.

Were the packaged toddler foods healthy?

To answer this question we first looked at how these foods fit within the Australian Dietary Guidelines (ADG) by determining whether the foods were ‘core’ (recommended) or discretionary, and whether they would be classified as ultra-processed, processed, or minimally-processed according to the NOVA classification system. We were interested in looking at both classification systems because there is a growing body of evidence that ultra-processed foods, like discretionary foods, can have detrimental effects on health.

We found that over half (60%) of the foods were core foods (e.g. yoghurts) with the remaining 40% being discretionary (e.g. fruit based cereal and snack bars, extruded puffs and ready-made frozen meals). A large proportion (85%) were ultra-processed. Of the foods classified as core (60% of all foods), interestingly, 79% of these were also classified as ultra-processed.  Surprisingly, only around 10 per cent of the snack foods were minimally processed and aligned with the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

These findings are thought-provoking because they show that, although both systems (Australian Dietary Guidelines and NOVA) aim to group foods according to how healthy they are for consumers, they are measuring different aspects of the foods that may influence health. As such, not all ‘core’ foods would also be considered health promoting by the NOVA system, and that very few of the 154 foods could be considered healthy by both measures.

Another interesting finding was that 66% of all foods had some form of added sugar, with 31% of snacks having this in the form of fruit pastes, purees or concentrates. Previous research by the Obesity Policy Coalition showed that added sugar in baby and toddler foods is of concern, as currently there are no clear labelling regulations of added sugar on packaged foods in Australia. This makes it difficult for consumers to determine which sugars are naturally occurring, and when sugar is being added purely as a sweetening agent.  

It is difficult to understand how a food can be promoted as a core food, yet be ultra-processed. Are we inadvertently sending mixed messages to consumers?

Findings from the study demonstrating high levels of ultra-processed foods in the food supply

So why are parents purchasing packaged toddler foods if they aren’t very healthy?

On-pack claims or messages have been shown to influence consumer purchasing, so we explored what sort of messaging was present on the toddler specific food packages. Most (99%) of the toddler products included in our study were labelled with messages and claims, with some products displaying up to 25 messages or claims. Some common messages were:

  • Free from gluten, and other common allergens
  • Lack of additives and preservatives
  • As good as homemade; organic
  • Made with real fruit
  • Rich source of Omega-3

There is also evidence that other marketing on packages, such as in the form of imagery, is also an important influence on purchasing decisions. Our audit showed that, in addition to the multitude of on-pack messaging, there were also many colourful and animated images, many of which were happy children playing or cartoon animals, all of which appeal to children and catch the eyes of consumers. The prolific use of claims and other marketing on packaged toddler foods was shown to be widespread in this market, so it is not surprising that consumers are being persuaded to purchase them.

Recommendations and next steps

While packaged toddler-specific foods can provide convenience and a tasty snack or meal, the results of this study have shown that the majority of them are not considered healthy options. Because 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, it is important that they are offered a range of fresh, unprocessed or minimally processed foods, which is likely best achieved with home-prepared snacks and meals. Consumers should be encouraged 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.

Jennifer McCann is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN). She is also a lecturer in undergraduate nutrition in the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, focusing mainly on Work Integrated Learning (WIL). Jennifer’s PhD is analysing the impact of Australian food policy and regulation on the toddler diet.

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