The Scary Truth Inside Baby Food

Your baby or toddler might be getting more than you think in store-bought foods – and it’s not the good stuff. More than 60% of the baby/toddler foods examined in a recent study were high in sodium, sugar, or both. The worst offender was was Gerber’s Fruit Medley Dessert, with 75% of its calories coming from added sugar.

While media brings much attention to high amounts of added sugar and sodium in processed food for children and adults, little focus is given to baby and toddler foods. Experts recently conducted a much-needed study to analyze the sodium and sugar content of processed baby and toddler foods, and compare them to adult foods.

The study analyzed 186 products marketed for baby (7 to 12 months) or toddler (12 to 24 months) consumption. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has set an adequate intake (AI) for sodium at 370 mg per day for babies and 1000 mg per day for toddlers. It also suggests that the general public limit the calories coming from added sugar to less than 25% of their total intake. Based on these recommendations, researchers classified products with less than 130 mg of sodium per serving as “acceptable” and more than 260 mg as “high in sodium.” Products with more than 20% of their calories from total sugar were “high in sugar.”

The results were surprising and disappointing. About 12% had more than 130 mg of sodium, while 16 products were classified as “high in sodium.” All of them were targeted to the toddler crowd. The worst product contained 55% of the toddler’s AI for the day: Gerber’s Graduates for Toddlers Lil’ Entrees: Chicken Pasta Wheel Pickups had a full 550 mg per serving.

High sugar content was even more prevalent: 53% of the products derived more than 20% of their calories from sugar; more than half of these were baby foods. (Purées of 100% fruit or vegetable were excluded because they contain only natural sugar.) The included foods had some natural sugars, but 40% had more sugar added.

When comparing baby/toddler foods to similar adult versions, they didn’t prove healthier, and were sometimes even worse. Toddler yogurts, for example, contained about 63 mg of sodium, while the adult sample only contained 50 mg.

Awareness of high amounts of sodium and added sugars in baby/toddler foods is particularly important because research suggests dietary habits are created during these formative years and affect adulthood taste preferences and dietary choices. As many adults struggle with chronic diseases that are heavily influenced by dietary habits, like high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity, experts are starting to recommended looking more discerningly at what goes into the mouths of the littlest people.

For healthier options, choose products without added sugar, such as corn or cane syrup; cane, beet, or brown sugar; dextrose; or fructose.  Also, look at the nutritional label for products with fewer than 130 mg of sodium per serving.  If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can even try making your own!  For babies, guidelines from pediatric specialist Dr. Sears will help you determine what to purée and how. Toddlers can eat the same healthy foods as adults, just in smaller portions.

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