Parents (including me!) got a serious wake-up call a few months ago when the American Heart Association released concrete guidelines for kids and added sugar. And it wasn't fooling around. According to the AHA's advice, children between the ages of 2 and 18 should have no more than 25 grams—the equivalent of about six teaspoons—of added sugar per day (added sugar is the kind put in by manufacturers, not the natural kind found in fruit and dairy). The kicker: It also recommended that children younger than 2 years of age have no added sugar at all!
The problem is, sweetened foods and drinks are still being developed for very young kids—including babies and toddlers—and they're being marketed to parents as healthy choices. A new report from the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity revealed that nearly six out of every 10 advertising dollars spent on marketing baby and toddler foods and drinks went to two things: nutritionally poor baby and toddler snacks (like puffs and gummy fruit snacks) and sugar-sweetened toddler drinks.
Toddler milk, sometimes referred to as "follow-up formula", was singled out in the study as being falsely marketed as a healthy step for children. Though these milks contain added vitamins and minerals, they also pack added sweeteners like sugar, glucose syrup solids, honey, and corn syrup. The leading brand lists an added sugar as its third ingredient. In 2015, almost $17 million was spent marketing toddler milks—a 74 percent increase from 2011.
According to the report, these drinks are presented as a solution to picky eating, which can often surface in the toddler years. Parents, worried about their kids' health, may turn to toddler milk as a sort of nutritional insurance. The marketing may also imply that these products are somehow superior to regular milk, though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children transition to regular cow's milk at age 1.
The American College of Family Physicians advises against toddler milk, saying there's no evidence it's any better than whole milk for growth and development and suggesting that pediatricians talk to parents about using a multivitamin supplement if they're concerned about picky eating. (Special fortified drinks can benefit children with malnutrition, failure to thrive, or a medical condition that makes a regular diet difficult.)
Though I find the AHA's recommendations a bit unrealistic (what about that first birthday cake?), it makes sense to avoid these sweetened drinks (and snacks) in light of recent warnings about added sugar. And these products may actually make picky eating worse. After all, if babies and toddlers are used to eating sweetened fruit snacks and chews, will actual fruit (and veggies) seem bland in comparison? And drinking sweetened beverages like toddler milk doesn't bode well for developing a taste for plain water. Instead, it may simply fuel a preference for other sugar-sweetened drinks—and research shows that a high intake of sugary drinks can lead to health risks like increased BMI, systolic blood pressure, and insulin resistance.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook Twitter Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.