A study suggests pint-sized convenience foods aimed at babies and toddlers pack a grown-up wallop of sugar and salt and normalize an unhealthy diet from an extremely early age.
Professor Charlene Elliott of the University of Calgary plucked products intended for the very young off supermarket shelves and examined their nutritional makeup.
She found items such as cereal bars, child-portioned microwave dinners, fruit jelly snacks, and dessert purees for babies. The study excluded juices and pure fruit and vegetable purees, as well as formula meant for infants.
Researchers visited five grocery stores, two drug stores and two department stores in Calgary and selected all the different products they could find that were explicitly labelled as meant for babies and toddlers.
Of the 186 items, 63 per cent were found to have high levels of sodium or what the researchers deemed as too many calories from sugar. More than half derived over 20 per cent of their calories from sugar.
"The fact that you can have things like 'premium organic first cookie for toddlers' marketed suggests that it's perfectly acceptable to be feeding your toddler a cookie or following up your baby's dinner of strained peas with baby food dessert," said Elliott.
"The normalization of these foods is something you really have to watch."
Elliott said such products have started appearing on shelves within the last five years and are likely to exploit parents who are legitimately pressed for time and want to give their children their own special clothes, toys and food.
Such foods often enjoy a "halo effect," she suggested. Parents assume the products must be healthy since they're made for children.
But her research showed smaller-sized snacks packed the same unhealthy punch as convenience food meant for adults - and were sometimes even worse.
"People expect them to be held to a gold standard because they're aimed at very young children. And yet this isn't necessarily the case."
Researchers considered the sodium levels and total levels of sugar listed on the nutritional information panels on the products in order to draw their conclusions.
They considered levels of less than 130 mg of sodium per serving as acceptable and those with more than 260 mg per serving as high.
They note that while added sugars are of the most concern, nutrition labels don't distinguish added sugars from naturally occurring sugars. Researchers therefore set the threshold for poor nutritional value as products that get more than 20 per cent of their calories from sugar.
Faced with the childhood obesity epidemic, Elliott said parents need to be wary of products that will teach their young kids that foods need to be overly salty or sweet to taste good.
Parents need to read the nutrition labels on the box, but also cast an eye to the ingredients, she said. Of the food studied, 40 per cent of items had a variant of sugar listed within the first four ingredients, while 20 per cent had added sweetness within the first two ingredients.
"Resist against the idea that adult classifications or adult conceptions of what they think a meal is, the notion of treats, are necessary to feed young children.
"Babies do not need to finish up their dinner with dessert."
Dr. Tom Warshawski, chair of the Childhood Obesity Foundation, said he's not surprised to hear about the products, which he said are likely designed to fill a niche in the market rather than with health benefits in mind.
"I think that the various industries are free to create and market food in this country," he said.
"Where the problem lies is that there's a lack of regulation as to the amount of added sugars and added salt that can be put into the manufacture of these products for children."
Warshawski said there's some movement from governments towards regulating the addition of salt to food, but that there needs to be a lot more attention given to the concept of added sugar, especially in food marketed to children.
He also suggested that stricter labelling laws could help parents understand what it is they're feeding their children.
"It's really hard to understand the potential dangers of an extra 13 per cent added sugar on a label - that your child really doesn't need this and it can contribute to multiple health problems for them down the road."
Jennifer House, a Calgary dietitian who caters specifically to pregnant moms and young children, said there's no reason convenience food marketed to that age group should exist.
"Really, they're unnecessary. You can go buy yogurt, or dry fruits and things that are appropriate for kids to eat, but that are more natural and cheaper," she said.
"They're just as convenient."
The study was funded by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest Canada and is published in the Journal of Public Health.