As a busy parent of young children, I've been known to run into the grocery store after work, throw seemingly healthy food packages into my cart and rush home to prepare dinner. But once I'm in my kitchen and look at the nutrition facts panel on the boxes, I often feel buyer's remorse when I see the amount of salt and sugar.
Recently, researchers in the journal Pediatrics reported on their examination of a wide range of toddler foods available in grocery stores in the United States.
Results revealed that almost 75 per cent of toddler dinners had greater than 210 mg sodium per serving.
The average amount of sodium in these foods was 361 mg, reaching as high as 404 mg per serving (almost half the amount of sodium recommended per day for toddlers). This same study found most prepackaged toddler crackers and vegetables and about half of yogurts with and without fruit had at least one source of "added sugar" in the ingredient list.
(We don't know if toddler foods available in Canada have the same amount of salt and sugar as those found in the United States. But the most recent data from the Canadian Community Health Survey tell us that 77 per cent of young children between the ages of one and three had usual salt intakes above what we call the "upper tolerable level.")
This finding is not surprising as many packaged foods available in grocery stores contain significant amounts of salt and added sugar. But it does mean that parents need to know what to look for, and what to avoid, when it comes to convenience foods for toddlers.
Do toddlers really need special foods?
Feeding toddlers is challenging, no question. But there is no nutritional reason to offer food products marketed to toddlers. Toddlers don't need them. Young children can get all the nutrition they need, for far less money, by following the basic recommendations from Canada's Food Guide. Sarah Remmer, a consulting dietitian in Calgary, and a mother of two young children, gives these tips for preparing snacks at home for toddlers: Chop veggies and fruits as soon as you bring them home from the grocery store/farmers' market to have them ready for quick serving; buy individually wrapped cheese, individual-sized containers of yogurt and cottage cheese; offer frozen peas, homemade granola bites, chopped hard-boiled eggs and French toast strips with yogurt.
Is salt a concern for toddlers?
Given the high prevalence of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity in adults, researchers are trying to understand how healthy eating habits, and more specifically, taste preferences are formed in early childhood. Last year, an infant feeding study in the U.S. concluded that children who are offered vegetables and fruit frequently in the first year of life were more likely to be eating them at the age of six. Development of taste preferences for salty foods may progress in the same manner: If young children are exposed to salty foods on a daily basis, they may develop a taste for it that lasts into adulthood.
The need for stricter control
Currently, Health Canada regulates the amount of sodium in, and prohibits addition of salt to, infant foods (foods that are specifically designed for consumption by children under the age of one). However, there are currently no regulations about food composition for products targeted to anyone over the age of one. In other words, there is nothing to limit the amount of salt or sugar that can be added to toddler products.
Health Canada has, however, suggested benchmark sodium levels for different processed foods, including those marketed to toddlers, and encourages food manufacturers "to focus on reducing sodium in foods targeted to children." The food industry has received voluntary guidance from Health Canada to reduce the amount of sodium in toddler foods by 25 to 30 per cent by 2016.
Be a nutrition sleuth
Read the nutrition facts panel to identify the amount of salt and sodium in a food product. Pay close attention to the serving size – it may not be the same portion you would serve your child nor is it necessarily the same as the amount of food in that package. Toddlers can consume about 1,000 mg sodium daily and should not exceed 1,500 mg per day. Unfortunately, there isn't a recommendation for parents regarding sugar intake for children (the recommendation for adults is to limit added sugars to 25 grams a day). Dietitians suggest parents look for added sugars in the ingredient list (including words ending in "ose," syrups, honey and fruit concentrates, as well as less common words such as cane juice extract, corn syrup and treacle), remembering that four grams of sugar is equal to one teaspoon.
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Becky Blair is a registered dietitian working in public health and a spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada. She was a member of the joint working group that developed the revised Nutrition for Healthy Term Infant Guidelines.