June 29/Toronto/The Toronto Star -- Baby and toddler foods found in Canadian grocery stores have too much sugar and are not, despite what parents might assume, more nutritious than adult-sized versions of similar products.
Some 54% of products targeting Canada's "littlest consumers" included in a new University of Calgary study were found to have more than 20% of their calories coming from sugar, considered to be an excessive amount.
Although there are no universally accepted standards for sugar levels in food for babies and toddlers, the study used guidelines that suggest food products are of poor nutritional quality if more than 20% of their calories derive from sugar.
Charlene Elliott, a professor of communication and culture at the university, has been studying the marketing of food to children, in the context of the obesity epidemic, for the last eight years. She says there is a "presumed halo effect" around foods for babies and toddlers -- and that parents might get swept up in the way these products are packaged and marketed.
"You approach them expecting them to be nutritionally superior, and that isn't necessarily the case," she says.
The study looked at 186 products including puréed dinners and desserts, toddler entrées and desserts, and snacks including cookies, fruit snacks, snack bars, yogurt and some cereals.
It left out infant formulas and cereals designed to be mixed with breast milk or water, juice and other beverages, and simple purées of fruits and vegetables, which would be high in natural sugars.
Published in the online Journal of Public Health, the study also compared baby and toddler foods to adult-versions of similar items. The researchers found that the products for young children were not nutritionally superior and, in some cases, were even sweeter than the products for adults.
"The special design certainly doesn't have to do with nutrition," Elliott says. "It might have to do with size and shape and fun, but not with nutrition."
Some 40% of the items contained sugar or some variant of sugar (such as corn syrup) as one of their first four ingredients.
Particularly sweet products included Gerber's Fruit Medley Dessert (with added sugar), which according to the study derives 75% of its calories from sugar, and Gerber's Graduates for Toddlers Juice Treats Fruit Snacks, which came in at 70%.
Elliott and her colleagues are tracking the "de-cerealization" of grocery stores and have noticed in the last few years a new and growing category of food products marketed for young children. She says many of these foods appeal to an adult sensibility of what meals are or should be.
"There's absolutely no nutritional reasons that a baby should complete his or her dinner of strained peas with a dessert of ... Banana coconut cream dessert purée."
Dr. Tom Warshawski, chair of Canada's Childhood Obesity Foundation, said young children do not need any added sodium or sugar in their diet, and that serving them products high in sugar and salt can begin to shape their taste preferences at an early age. It can also have a detrimental effect on their health, causing surges in hormones that lead to high blood pressure, insulin resistance and obesity.
"The plumping up of our population begins in infancy," he warned.
From the July 6, 2010, Prepared Foods E-dition