Tot Meals Not as Healthy as They Seem

Sugar and salt content in some prepackaged toddler foods may be too high

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Few children say no to sweets and salty snacks. However, a healthy diet early in life may set kids on a path to good health.

A recent study found that many US prepackaged meals and snacks for toddlers had too much salt and added sugar.

Reading labels and choosing products with less sodium and sugar could help parents give children a healthy start, said the authors of this study.

"A child develops his/her tastes at a very early age and they are directly influenced by the foods they are introduced to early on," said Thomas M. Seman, MD, a Boston-based pediatrician, in an interview with dailyRx News. "Obviously if the parents have a healthy diet and introduce this type of eating early on, the children will accept and want these types of foods over the other types."

Lead author Mary E. Cogswell, DrPH, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and colleagues studied the sodium and sugar content of more than 1,000 commercially prepared foods for toddlers and infants. The foods included dinners, snacks, fruits, vegetables, cereals, juices and desserts sold in major US grocery stores.

Most complementary infant foods were low in sodium and had no added sugars, Dr. Cogswell and team found. Complementary foods like fruit or vegetable purees supplement breast milk or formula in children younger than 1.

But a significant percentage of the foods for children 12 months and older had added sugar and too much salt, these researchers found.

More than a quarter of toddler dinners and the majority of snacks and desserts had at least one type of added sugar. Also, almost three quarters of toddler dinners had more salt than recommended, Dr. Cogswell and team found.

Children ages 1 to 3 should get less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day, according to the American Heart Association.

"This study shows that toddlers are exposed to foods that have an unnecessarily high content of salt and sugar," wrote Susan S. Baker, MD, of the University at Buffalo in New York, in an editorial about this study. "This could lead them to develop a desire for these tastes for the rest of their lives. The continued consumption of foods with high sodium and sugar content places children at risk for obesity and [heart disease], risks that they should not experience and risks that we, as pediatricians, have an obligation to mitigate."

Parents should limit children's snacks and juices and check labels for sugar and salt content, Dr. Cogswell and team said.

Also, homemade foods are a healthy alternative to commercial foods, Dr. Seman said.

"Parents often tell me how they are trying to set aside time to make their own baby food and how sometimes it can be so hard," Dr. Seman said. "But a parent should be able to take a portion of the vegetables they are making for their own meals, prior to adding seasoning, and place them in a food processor to feed to the child. This will eliminate the added sodium (salt) and sugar. The same can be done for the meats/proteins that are being made for a meal."

The food industry could also reduce sugar and salt in kids' meals and find new ways to preserve and flavor them, Dr. Cogswell and team wrote.

"The industry knows that there is an addictive quality to sweets that increases the desire to eat these foods," Dr. Seman added. "If parents are feeding children these foods at an early age, then they will gravitate towards this type of food later on."

The study and editorial were published Feb. 2 in the journal Pediatrics.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funded this research. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.


Review Date: 
February 1, 2015
Last Updated:
March 12, 2015