June 13, 2024


Welcome to the Food

Popular toddler snacks no better than junk food, new study

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

Many parents buy packaged snacks for their kids to save themselves time and energy.

Now they are being urged to avoid these popular products, after a new Australian study found many of these items are simply ‘ultra-processed junk foods’. 

The study, conducted by Jennifer McCann from the Institute of Physical Activity and Nutrition at Deakin University, found that 85 per cent of toddler food and milk drinks are ultra-processed, while 80 per cent were sweetened. 

Published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, McCann says the findings are worrying because many parents assume that food made especially for young children is nutritious and suitable to eat on a regular basis as part of a healthy diet.

“This research tells us that packaged toddler foods should only be eaten occasionally, if at all,” Ms McCann said.

The study reviewed 154 toddler specific foods and 32 toddler milk products found in Aussie supermarkets and chemists.

Most of the foods were highly processed sweetened fruit and cereal bars, extruded puffs and ready-made frozen meals. Many had added sugars, in the form of fruit pastes, purees or concentrates.

“Only 10 per cent of the snack foods aligned with the Australian Dietary Guidelines,” McCann explained.

“Just over half included one of the five food groups from the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating but nearly half of these were also ultra-processed. The remaining snack foods were discretionary or occasional foods.”

McCann also said most of the milk products were highly sweetened and some had nearly twice the sugar content per 100ml of soft drink  – which was essentially getting kids “hooked on sugar”.

According to dietitians Anna Debenham and Alex Parker from The Biting Truth, too much added sugar puts children at an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

“Excess sugar intake can also impact mood and disrupt the balance of beneficial bacteria in children’s guts which can contribute or exacerbate conditions like eczema, allergies and food sensitivities,” they tell Essential Baby

Experts recommend toddlers eat a wide variety of healthy foods – along with different tastes and textures to prepare them for a varied diet as they grow.

The study highlights how important it is to cook as many of your meals and snacks at home, say Debenham and Parker.

“Some of these processed foods can have very smooth or textures that don’t require chewing, meaning toddlers aren’t learning this skill which is important for jaw and speech development,” they explain.

“Toddlers should be eating family meals and fresh, unprocessed or minimally processed foods to achieve their nutrient and food based needs,” McCann added.

As always, don’t be fooled by marketing claims – and be mindful that manufacturers often disguise added sugars by listing them as other names in the ingredients list. 

“By all means, buy convenient snacks occasionally and allow your children to enjoy them in moderation for what they are but don’t be fooled by these health claims,” say Debenham and Parker.

“It would be great to see the processed food industry start to be more accountable and transparent when marketing their goods.”