Misleading food labels help babies and toddlers eat too much sugar

Australian babies and toddlers are eating unhealthy amounts of sugar. This is mainly because the products marketed and sold by the processed food industry are high in sugar.

According to Australia’s latest National Nutrition Survey, two to three year olds consumed 32 grams of added sugar per day, which is equivalent to 8 teaspoons of white sugar.

Our research shows that the increased availability of ultra-processed foods for very young children may be contributing to a sugary diet.

So what can parents do about it?

What does excess sugar do to children?

The problem with too much sugar in our diets is that it provides kilojoules but little else nutritionally.

These extra kilojoules promote weight gain and obesity. They are also a major contributor to tooth decay in young children and often crowd out healthy options like fruits, vegetables, and dairy products from children’s diets.

One in four Australian children have dental caries in their milk or permanent teeth.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that “free sugar intake” be limited to less than 10% of our total daily calories for everyone. In fact, the WHO is now considering reducing that amount to 5% as children’s sugar intake remains high.

Free sugars are those added to food and beverages, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, fruit juices, and fruit juice concentrates. Free sugars do not include naturally occurring sugars found in whole (unprocessed) fruits and vegetables or milk.

Results from the Australian National Nutrition Survey indicate that young children aged two to three years consume an average of 11% of their total energy intake from free sugar. Half of the toddlers exceeded the current WHO sugar-free sugar recommendation.

Where does the sugar come from?

The latest National Health Survey also tells us that sugar comes mostly from highly processed foods like baked goods, sugar-sweetened beverages, chocolate and confectionery, breakfast cereals, and desserts.

These foods provide 80 to 90% of children’s daily added sugar intake.

But it’s not just about sweets. Commercial baby and toddler foods are a major source of hidden sugars in young children’s diets. It is largely ultra-processed foods that have undergone multiple industrial processes. They contain ingredients like added sugar, salt, and fat, as well as additives to make them attractive. Ultra-processed foods often contain ingredients that would not be used if we made a similar product at home.

Our research shows that ultra-processed foods, particularly snack foods, are common. They comprise 85% of all food marketed to young children in Australia (as of 2019).

These ultra-processed toddler foods often contain ingredients like fruit pastes, purees, or concentrates. They may sound healthy, with slogans like “made from real fruit,” but they are very different from the whole fruit from which they come.

Consumers may assume that these products are healthy due to the labeling and images of fruit on the package. But our bodies handle ultra-processed foods much differently than it does whole foods, which have had minimal or no processing.

Some toddler foods that are marketed as “no sugar added” or “all natural” contain, in some cases, up to 50% fruit sugar in the form of fruit purees or concentrates.

Some toddler milks, which are also ultra-processed, contain more sugar in the same volume as a soft drink. And nearly a third of salty toddler foods also contain fruit purees.

While this can make the food more palatable to a child, ensuring that parents will buy it again, it also ensures that children develop a sweet tooth preference.

3 things parents can do

While it is not necessary to eliminate all free sugar, the evidence tells us that most children consume more than is good for them. So how can we reduce that?

1. Demand accurate labeling

Honest food labeling is needed in which food manufacturers are required to disclose the amount of added sugar in food products. For example, a clear definition of “added sugar” would ensure that all harmful sugars are listed on food labels, including highly processed fruit-based ingredients used in baby and toddler foods. You can sign up to advocate for this through the Kids are Sweet Enough campaign.

2. Pantry Swaps

Replace sugar-sweetened foods with foods that are often already in the kitchen. Swap out common sources of sugar, including cakes, cookies, pastries, sugar, and sweet spreads with whole-grain breads, low-sugar cereals (such as porridge or Weet-Bix), vegetables, and fruits (cut to the right size for swallow them) and nut pastes.

Swap sugary drinks, sweetened milk products, and toddler milks for plain water (boiled and chilled for children over six months) and plain cow’s milk (12 months and older).

3. Connect to places to learn more

For practical advice and support about feeding your baby or toddler, download the My Baby Now app from the App Store or Google Play.

Parents can join our free online course Infant Nutrition, or search here to see if the INFANT (Infant Feeding, Play and Nutrition) Program is running in your area.

Jennifer McCann, professor, PhD student, deakin university and Miaobing (Jazzmin) Zheng, NHMRC Early Careers Research Fellow, deakin university

Julie Woods, Karen Campbell, and Rachel Laws contributed to this article.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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