The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Are Baby and Toddler Foods Healthier Than Their Adult Equivalents? PART 1 - Sugar

Posted in
Eat better

Friday, Jul 09, 2010

If you read our recent blog on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines you know that added sugar and sodium are two dietary components that Americans are eating WAY too much of. While there are differing opinions as to why we're eating too much, it's clear that this is a problem in not only adults, but also children. This is concerning because research shows that dietary habits are formed early in life and persist over time. Furthermore, studies show that the composition of early childhood diet may directly impact metabolic pathways and health during adulthood. Thus, it's imperative that we feed our children the healthiest foods possible.

In this two-part series (see our blog on 7/16 for part two) we'll reveal the results of a study recently published in the Journal of Public Health which collected nutritional information on 186 baby and toddler foods and compared these foods against their adult counterparts for sugar and sodium.1 Are baby and toddler foods nutritionally superior to adult foods or do they contain levels of sugar and salt that are just as high and may be promoting a taste for 'sweet' and/or 'salty' in young people?

While this study was conducted in Canada, it included brands frequently purchased by American parents like Gerber Graduates, Beech-Nut's Let's Grow, and Walmart's Parent's Choice. Excluded from the study were simple purees of 100% vegetables and fruits. While these foods have naturally occurring sugars, they differ from prepared dinners or desserts that have sugar and/or salt added to them. Thus, the 186 products analyzed included: pureed dinners and desserts, toddler entrees and dinners, snacks (including biscuits, cookies, fruit snacks, snack bars, and yogurts), and some cereals.

So how did the SUGAR content of these baby/toddler foods compare to what's recommended for a "healthy diet" and amounts found in similar adult products?

Let's start with the recommendations. The Institute of Medicine recommends that 25 percent or less of total calories come from added sugars. The World Health Organization recommends that less than 10 percent of total calories come from added sugars. And the American Heart Association recommends that added sugars are no more than half of daily discretionary calories. As an example, a 3-year-old girl who does 30-60 minutes of physical activity a day needs about 1200 calories and is allowed 171 discretionary calories. Thus, it would be recommended that she consume no more than 300, 120, or 85 calories from added sugar.

Determining how much added sugar a food product has is difficult, however. The Nutrition Facts panel on the food label does not distinguish added sugars from naturally occurring sugars. Thus, total sugar was considered for the products in this study, and a product that had more than 20 percent of it's calories from sugar was considered high.

So what did the researchers find? Over half (52 percent) of the products had more than 20 percent of their calories from sugar. Pureed baby food desserts averaged 48 percent of calories from sugar and snacks (biscuits, cookies, corn snacks, rice cakes/crackers, fruit snacks, yogurt) averaged 30 percent of calories from sugar. Forty percent of the products listed sugar or some variant of sugar (e.g., corn syrup, fructose) in the first four ingredients on the label and 36 products listed sugar or some variant of sugar as either the first or second ingredient! Therefore, it can be reasonably assumed that a child who consumes just two of the previously mentioned baby/toddler snacks will exceed his/her recommended daily limit of added sugar.

But these products are nutritionally superior to their adult equivalents, right? Not always! Researchers found that toddler cereal bars had more calories from sugar (on average) than adult cereal bars and teething biscuits had almost the same amount of calories from sugar as adult-targeted biscuits.

In conclusion, parents need to carefully select the foods they serve their babies and toddlers. Products marketed toward this age group are not necessarily healthy and oftentimes are quite the opposite. So what's the busy parent to do? Read food labels, in particular the ingredient list where sugar is listed, and purchase as many whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads, pastas, cereals, and lean meat, eggs, and beans. The more "whole" a product is, the less processed it is and less potential for additives like sugar.

Did the results of this study surprise you? Stay tuned for the results of the SODIUM test in next week's blog.

1Elliott, C.D. (2010). Sweet and salty: nutritional content and analysis of baby and toddler foods. Journal of Public Health, Advance Access, doi: 10.1093, pp.1-8.