Nine in 10 toddler foods fail international nutrition recommendations: new study

29 Mar 2023

Obesity Policy Coalition calls for urgent action to protect Australian children’s health

New research reveals two thirds (67%) of baby and toddler foods in Aussie supermarkets fail to meet 7 nutrition recommendations set by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) European office.

Foods for toddlers performed worst, with a shocking 9 in 10 toddler foods failing nutrition recommendations.

A Cancer Council Victoria study into 250 baby and toddler foods assessed added sugar and sweetness, sodium (salt), fat, protein and energy levels against WHO recommendations and found:

  • Overall, only 5 per cent of snacks met all 7 recommendations, with sodium and sugar/sweetness revealed as the most problematic ingredients.
  • Only 13 per cent of snacks for babies and 12 per cent of snacks for toddlers met all 3 recommendations for sugar and sweetness.
  • Only half of the snacks marketed to children under 3 met sodium recommendations, with baby snacks performing much better than toddler snacks (70 per cent of baby snacks compared to 37 per cent of toddler snacks).

Jane Martin, Obesity Policy Coalition, Executive Manager, said these findings clearly reflect that while some progress has been made in setting limits on sodium in foods for babies, no regulations exist for toddler foods. Also of concern was that there was no regulation for how much sugar can be in foods for either babies or toddlers.

“These findings are extremely concerning and indicate an urgent need for action to protect the health of Australia’s most vulnerable consumers. For many children, these packaged foods make up a significant portion of what they eat every day,” Ms Martin said.

“For years, the processed food industry has prioritised their profits over our kids’ health. Australian families rightly expect foods marketed to vulnerable babies and toddlers to be healthy. Instead, the processed food industry pushes these baby and toddler products with names and claims that suggest they are healthier than they in fact are.” 

Ms Martin commented that to ensure our children’s health is protected, the Australian government urgently needs to set higher standards for baby and toddler foods.

“Our community expects government to protect our kids’ health. The success of setting limits on sodium in baby foods should be extended to toddler foods on supermarket shelves and limits must be set for sugars in foods for all children under 3

“Recent data shows that Australian parents would support robust standards, with 9 in 10 agreeing there should be laws to limit both salt and harmful sugars in baby and toddler foods.”

Dr Sandro Demaio, VicHealth, Chief Executive Officer, said “It’s irresponsible and deceptive for the processed food industry to load up these products with added sugar and then market them specially for toddlers.

“This dangerous ploy is a bid to boost profits and can lead to problems later in life, including weight gain and type 2 diabetes.

“Clear, transparent labelling is needed to help families better understand these products moving forward.”

A proposal to mandate labelling of added sugar on all packaged foods is currently being undertaken by Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

Ms Martin said while sodium levels are easily found on the nutrition information panel on Australian packaged foods, no such information can be found for added sugars.

“Honest, clear labelling of added sugars in packaged foods is critical particularly for packaged foods for babies and toddlers. But first we must accurately define ‘added sugar’ to ensure it includes all sugars that consumers should limit and avoid in their diet. It’s crucial that this includes processed fruit sugars, like fruit pastes, juices and concentrates, which are often added to foods for our youngest Australians.”

 “Regularly eating sugary, sweet foods puts babies and toddlers at risk of tooth decay. It’s also concerning that most young children are not eating the recommended amount of vegetables. Babies and toddlers can eat the same healthy foods as families – but for babies it should be mashed and pureed.”

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Notes for editors:

This is a cross-sectional study of 250 baby (under 12 months) and toddler (12-36 months) processed products found in-store and online at three major Victorian supermarkets (Aldi, Coles and Woolworths) in 2019. Products were grouped according to WHO Europe’s food categories and their nutrient content assessed against composition standards.

WHO European Office recommends:

Baby & toddler foods should not contain added sugars and other sweetening agents;

Only limited amounts of dried or pureed fruit should be used to sweeten baby & toddler foods;

Baby & toddler finger foods and snacks should contain less than 15 per cent of energy from totals sugars.

Baby and toddler foods should contain less than 50 milligrams sodium per 100 grams and less than 50 milligrams per 100 kilocalories (unless the product contains cheese where the limit is higher).