Toddler foods with excessive sodium, added sugar set taste preferences

Many toddler snacks and foods contain sodium and sugar levels that are "concerning" for children’s future health, doctors say.

Researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed sodium and sugar levels in 1,074 infant and toddler dinners, snacks, fruits, vegetables, dry cereals, juices and desserts.

About 72 per cent of toddler dinners were high in sodium, with more than 210 milligrams per single serving, Dr. Mary Cogswell of the CDC in Atlanta and her colleagues said in Monday’s issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Another 32 per cent of toddler dinners and most toddler cereal bars, infant or toddler snacks, desserts and juices had one or more added sugars, defined as more than 35 per cent of calories per portion coming from sugar.

"Reducing excessive sodium and added sugar from birth to 24 months can help set taste preferences and lead to better health for children now and as they grow," the study’s authors wrote.

Cogswell said sodium is directly related to blood pressure, which in adulthood becomes a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

While baby foods were low in sodium, toddler meals,such as macaroni and cheese or chicken with pasta, showed wide variations in sodium from a low of 100 milligrams to a high of 950 milligrams. The maximum recommended amount for toddlers is no more than 1,500 milligrams a day.

"Didn't really matter whether the toddler meal was organic or otherwise, or if the toddler meal was a store brand or a major brand," she said in an interview.

In 2014, University of Calgary communication and culture professor Charlene Elliott followed up on her 2010 research into the "inexpensive palate pleasers" in baby and toddler foods sold in Canada.

Elliott noted how product ingredient lists can sometimes "cloak" the real nutritional profile, such as teething biscuits that are high in sugar but don’t list sugar in the first two ingredients because of multiple flour content.

Think outside the box

Parents may assume foods designed for babies and toddlers follow a higher nutritional standard. Research shows "this assumption — while reasonable — is incorrect," Elliott concluded.

The sodium concentration in infant and toddler savory snacks in the latest study was comparable to plain salted potato chips.

When nutritionist Lianne Phillipson-Webb of Sprout Right in Toronto checked the nutrition labels on a variety of toddler meals and snacks, she said the pasta meals were often the highest in sodium, because it’s added to both the grain and sauce.

Buying bite-sized pasta and preparing it yourself or cutting up regular spaghetti with homemade sauce is a better option.

Phillipson-Webb also suggested parents think outside the box for toddler snacks, such as homemade spreads on rice crackers, almond butter on banana slices or bean dips.

"A lot of my clients and parents that I've met think if it's in the baby aisle, then they can trust it," she said.

Toronto resident Erika Rodrigues's children are six months, and three and four years old, and says she tries to buy what she feels is healthy for them.

"When I'm in the grocery store, which feels like every other day, I'm not the type to read the labels. There's just no time. It's just in and out. I get what I know is good for them."

It's also possible the guidance from the study will help parents to make better choices and steer policymakers to set better standards for children's commercial foods, Dr. Susan Baker of the University at Buffalo concluded in a journal commentary published with the study.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade groupbased in Washington, D.C., with members that include makers of foods for infants and toddlers, expressed concern with the study.

In an emailed statement, the group said the study "does not accurately reflect the wide range of healthy choices available in today's marketplace that parents can turn to for feeding their infants and toddlers because it is based on 2012 data that does not reflect new products with reduced sodium levels, and it could needlessly alarm and confuse busy parents as they strive to develop suitable meal options that their children will enjoy."