According to the center at the University of Connecticut, which evaluated publically available data for marketing in 2015 and nutrition content and product packaging in April to June 2016 for products marketed for babies and toddlers in the US, the vast majority of baby and toddler snack foods, such as cookies, cereal bars, puffs and fruit snacks, were not nutritious choices for young children.
In fact, only four of the 80 snacks it reviewed had Nutrition Profile Index scores of 64 or higher, which is the cut-off for foods that can be advertised to children in the UK, according to the report.
Furthermore, it found half of baby snacks and 83% of toddler snacks contained added sweeteners, which the World Health Organization, American Academy of Pediatrics and other experts agree children under the age of 2 years should not have, the report notes.
This is compared to “an impressive 100% of all fruit, vegetable and meal products offered by all brands in our analysis,” which qualified as nutritious with most scoring 76 or higher, according to the report.
Despite these differences and the nutritional shortcomings of many snacks, labels for baby and toddler snacks were more likely to feature nutrition-related messages than other food products, according to the report, which noted Plum Organics snacks had up to 9.5 such claims – the most of any of the reviewed products.
These claims included several nutrition-related messages and developmental benefits for children, such as “real, natural, organic,” “encourages self-feeding” and “delights tiny taste buds.”
The report cautions that “research on nutrition-related messages on children’s cereals has shown that these types of messages mislead parents to believe that products also provide health-related benefits to their children.”
At an even more basic level, the report also suggests that many product names did not match the ingredients, which “may mislead parents about what they are feeding their children and/or product healthfulness.”
Beyond the claims and nutritional content of toddler and baby snacks, the center also took issue with the emerging pouch packaging trend for these products.
In recent years, several manufacturers have moved towards pouches of pureed foods as a way to encourage children to eat more fruits and vegetables. The packaging is often touted as convenient for on-the-go families and as a way for children to feed themselves.
High profile brands, including Plum Organics and Happy Tot heavily market pouch products, which make up 56% and 82% of their toddler food products respectively.
However, the center argues in the report that even though the pouches are filled with nutritious food, they “do not promote young children’s eating development skills or expose children to the colors, varying taste and textures of real fruits and vegetables.”
It added: “Toddlers’ diets should help them develop gross and fine motor skills and learn to enjoy the taste, flavors and textures of real fruits and vegetables. By age two, toddlers should be eating the same food as the rest of the family.”
Plus, the report notes that “pureed food is not recommended for children older than one year.”
As if that weren’t enough, the center also warned the pouches could promote overeating.
Regulators and healthcare providers called to action
While the report encourages industry to self-correct and ensure that advertising and nutritional content for baby and toddler snacks is on the up-and-up, it also calls on regulators to step-up oversight.
“Regulators should ensure that all messages on product packaging and in advertising are truthful and not misleading,” the report notes, specifically tasking the US Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general with taking action to stop manufacturers from making misleading claims on product packaging and in their marketing messages.
It adds: “Current government-sponsored child nutrition education programs through WIC, SNAP, CACFP and Head Start could begin to address the messages that parents receive through marketing for baby and infant food and drinks and help correct parents’ misunderstanding of these messages.”
Likewise, the report encourages health professionals and advocates to counsel parents about their children’s diet and the type of foods they should consume.
What are the emerging trends in snacks?
From sprouted mung beans to Japanese-inspired onigiri, the snacks market is a hotbed of innovation. But what’s next? Hear from Peeled Snacks, Dang Foods, Field Trip Jerky, Protes and board advisor and guru Brad Barnhorn at our FREE-to-attend online Snacking Innovation Summit on Feb 15.