Sugar Mountain: What are our Babies and Toddlers Eating?

Written by: Lianne Castelino

Published: Jul 16, 2010

The battle lines are drawn between healthy eating crusaders and industry, First Lady Michelle Obama and multinationals in the foodservice arena, all with a view to zero in on the enemy – obesity.  The marketing of food products to children, in particular products that are high in sugar, sodium, calories and fats, is being targeted by a growing number of American manufacturers.

North of the border, the movement is perhaps more understated, but every bit as determined.  The common assumption that food manufacturers are making the food your baby or toddler eats —  entrees, cereals, and snacks —  as nutritious as possible is being assertively questioned and challenged.

A study by Dr. Charlene Elliott’s called, – “Sweet and salty: nutritional content and analysis of baby and toddler foods” – has found that not all manufacturers are meeting parents’ expectations for their children’s diets. The University of Calgary professor is an expert in food marketing, policy and children’s health.  Her most recent study, funded by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest Canada, explores levels of sugar and sodium in almost 200 baby and toddler food products.

Dr. Elliott determined that more than half of the baby and toddler food products examined – which included fruit snacks, cereal bars, desserts, and cookies – get over 20 percent of their calories from sugar. 40 percent of the studied products listed sugar or a sugar variant in the first four ingredients on the label. More than that, 19 percent of the foods studied had sugar or a sugar variant as the first or second ingredient.

So what is making parents buy such unhealthy meals and treats?

The study found that the packaging of a product – including labels and a product’s framing – spoke to mature tastes, prompting parents to turn towards products that were marketed organic, premium, and even as dessert. A press release issued on Dr. Elliott’s study notes that “there is no nutritional reason that babies should complete their meals with Banana Coconut Cream Dessert puree.” More than the unnecessary nature of feeding a baby dessert, the press release points out that such foods have the potential to guide children towards developing a taste for sweets.

So how can parents keep children healthy in the face of such marketing tactics?

“Reading nutrition labels and having a solid base knowledge of the ingredients listed and what they mean is important for parents,” says Andrea Howick, mother of 3 and co-founder of  “For example, something many parents don’t realize is that sugar appears in a variety of forms in all kinds of foods.  Fructose and glucose are forms of sugar, even though sugar itself may not be listed in the ingredients.”

“Be vigilant about reading the ingredient list,” says Dr. Elliott. “One might reasonably presume that a product labelled as Juice Treats Fruit Snacks are a healthy choice — particularly when the box affirms that they are specially designed for toddlers and made just for a growing toddler’s needs. Yet [the product] derive[s] just under 70% of its calories from sugar and list corn syrup and sugar as the first two ingredients. The “special design” for toddlers most certainly has nothing to do with nutrition.”

Dr. Charlene Elliott is an Associate Professor in Communication Studies at the University of Calgary with a joint appointment in Kinesiology.

She acts as principal investigator of several grants focused on food marketing, policy and children’s health – including a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) grant on the marketing of foods to children – and sits on the Board of Trustees for the Canadian Council of Food and Nutrition.

Read Sweet and salty: nutritional content and analysis of baby and toddler foods by Dr. Charlene Elliott.

Photo courtesy of the University of Calgary

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