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Is Your Toddler's Food Healthy?


What is your toddler’s favorite food? Chances are it is a fruit snack, sugar-laden toddler yogurt, or another processed food that may contain more salt or sugar than is considered healthy for a toddler.

According to a new study conducted at the University of Calgary and published in the Journal of Public Health, an evaluation of 186 baby and toddler foods for their sugar and sodium content revealed that 63 percent had either high levels of sodium or an excessive proportion of calories from sugar. This finding is of special concern given that research suggests that the composition of the early childhood diet can have a significant impact on metabolism and health throughout adulthood.

For example, recently there has been increasing concern about high cholesterol, obesity, and high blood pressure in young children and adolescents and the impact on their health both now and in the future. Therefore, there is concern that feeding young children these foods will stimulate and promote their taste for sweet and salty foods that will stay with them as adults.

Because so many parents do not prepare a home-cooked meal and eat it together with their children, instead relying on microwavable frozen entrees, take-out food, and ready-to-eat products from a box or can, the toddler food market has responded to this trend. The result has been toddler dinners, toddler yogurts, junior desserts, toddler snacks, and other processed choices for parents to toss into their food baskets. But are they healthy choices?

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The study’s findings indicate that parents need to be educated, cautious purchasers. When it comes to sodium (salt), for example, more than 12 percent of the products evaluated had moderate to high levels of sodium. The current recommendations from the Institute of Medicine for adequate intake levels for sodium for babies ages 7 to 12 months and toddlers ages 12 to 24 months are 370 mg and 1,000 mg daily, respectively. Some experts in Canada (where this study was conducted), however, argue that the sodium recommendations for all ages are too high.

Of greater concern than the products with high sodium content are those with too much sugar. The researchers found that 53 percent of the products assessed derived more than 20 percent of their calories from sugar. Among them were pureed baby food desserts (87% contained high sugar), cookies and teething biscuits (24% high sugar), fruit snacks and yogurt products (100% high sugar), and cereals (76% high sugar). Forty percent of the foods listed sugar (e.g., corn syrup, brown sugar, dextrose, fructose, cane syrup) among the first four ingredients on their labels, and 36 products listed sugar as either the first or second ingredient.

The study lists the amount of sugar found in the evaluated food products. Some of the fruit snacks and desserts, which contain naturally occurring fruit sugars, also had added sugars. Gerber’s Fruit Medley Dessert, for example, contains natural fruit plus added sugars, which results in a product that derives 75 percent of calories from sugar. Gerber’s Graduates for Toddlers Juice Treats Fruit Snacks derive just less than 70 percent of their calories from sugar, with corn syrup and sugar as the first two ingredients listed.

Parents need to read product labels carefully for sodium and salt content when buying food for their toddlers. The American Heart Association’s 2005 “Dietary Recommendations for Children and Adolescents: A Guide to Practitioners” simply recommends that parents reduce the amount of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages their children consume. This offers parents no true guidelines regarding sugar consumption.

As the number of toddler-focused foods increase in the supermarkets, parents are urged to be aware that some of these foods may not be healthy for their young children. Parents can rarely go wrong if they stick to the basics, such as whole grains (e.g., oatmeal, whole-grain pastas), fresh fruits, fresh cooked vegetables, and other healthy choices that are appropriate for their child’s age and nutritional needs. The food toddlers eat today will have an impact on their health both now and in the future.

American Heart Association
Elliott CD. Journal of Public Health 2010 Jun 28; online
Maurer AD et al. Journal of Physiology 2009; 587:679-91