Sugar, Salt, and Fat: What’s in Your Baby’s Food?

Every parent wants the best for their kids, right from birth. So when baby food is introduced into a baby’s diet, parents make sure they have a good balance of protein, vegetables, and fruits. When the toddler years come along and snacks come into the picture, parents typically look for more nutritious choices over things like candy and cookies.

But things that may seem like healthy options and are marketed as better choices for kids may actually be high in sugar, fat, and sodium, not to mention other unhealthy ingredients like artificial colors and chemicals. For example, one brand of toddler snack was found to have enough sodium, fat, and sugar to be comparable to Cheetos.

Baby food and toddler snacks and drinks are a big business. The Washington Post reports that 2018 saw four times more baby/toddler food and drink launches than in 2005 and that most are very high in sugar. The main reason for the upsurge, they report, stems from parents wanting easy, on-the-go packaging. While parents are targeted with advertising pushing this convenience, some products are also marketed with words that insinuate a healthy snack, like “organic”, “protein”, “fiber”, and “whole grains”. What you’ll find in the nutrition facts – typically in smaller print – is the huge amount of sugar and sodium that’s also in many of these snacks. One particular company (we won’t mention names) promotes the “healthy” aspects of their toddler snack bars by highlighting all four of these positive-sounding terms – sounds great, right? Look closer at the nutrition facts section, and you’ll see that each small 0.88 oz. bar also includes a whopping two teaspoons of total sugars.

The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics published the results of a first-ever in-depth study examining the “trends in added sugar consumption by toddlers and infants.” The study found that 61 percent of infants and 98 percent of toddlers consumed added sugars in their diets every day. In this study, most of these added sugars were in fruit drinks and flavored yogurts, though other studies also included sweet baked goods and other products marketed as baby/toddler snacks. The study’s lead investigator, Dr. Kirsten A. Herrick, stated that the consumption of added sugar by children “has been associated with negative health conditions, including cavities, asthma, obesity, elevated blood pressure and altered lipid profiles [cholesterol and triglycerides].” The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also adds to that list type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, and other health conditions.

Besides snacks, toddler dinners didn’t fare well either when researched by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). They found that 72 percent of toddler dinners had more than 210 mg of sodium each; since the maximum amount recommended for toddlers is 370 mg of sodium daily, a single toddler dinner already takes up a hefty amount of that total. Add to that the sodium in any snacks and other meals, and it’s easy to see how a toddler’s daily sodium intake can get out of control. The CDC also found that almost half of all infant foods, including fruits and mixed grain products, contained added sugars.

The American Heart Association recommends that children under two years of age avoid all added sugar consumption. Herrick pointed out that, “Eating patterns established early in life shape later eating patterns”, something every parent should consider when choosing snacks and foods for their children. The journal Pediatrics echoes Herrick’s point, stating that taste preferences for both sugar and sodium later in life are linked to early exposure. Unfortunately, studies have shown that the average infant gets about one teaspoon of sugar a day, and toddlers are eating six teaspoons every day – six teaspoons is the maximum amount for adults – and those numbers went up among certain ethnic backgrounds.

The AAP has a number of recommendations to help parents avoid high sugar, fat, and sodium in their children’s diets, including:

  • Avoid giving children drinks and snacks with added sugars; this includes sodas, sports drinks, fruit drinks, and sweetened tea products
  • Instead serve water and milk, which contains important nutrients for growing bodies
  • Substitute fresh fruits for sweet treats
  • Limit fruit juices, as they contain more sugar than fresh fruits
  • Check ingredients of products like ketchup, salad dressings, dried fruits (raisins, cranberries), etc. for added sugars

Finally, the most important vegetables are those with color over white vegetables like potatoes, and the way a vegetable is prepared is just as important. A November 18, 2019 New Yorker article titled “Can Babies Learn to Love Vegetables?” stated that “On any given day, a quarter of American toddlers eat no vegetables. When they do eat them, the most popular choice is French fries.” Besides fried foods carrying their own health risks, French fries are typically loaded with sodium and many times are dipped into ketchup, which contains added sugars. Introducing healthier choices from young can develop healthier taste preferences.

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