Foods Labeled 'Good For Babies and Toddlers' Often Fall Short on Nutrition

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

A new review by the Rudd Center for Food Policy found that many baby and toddler foods marketed to parents as “healthy” or “good for your kids” fall short of accepted guidelines for child nutrition.

As a parent you try to do well by your children. Every day, decisions are guided by the single question — what is best for my child? But it can be extremely daunting to provide healthy foods for your kids. The 2015 – 2020 USDA Nutrition Guidelines were a recent update to help consumers make better food choices with clear rules and consumer-friendly information.

A variety of fruits and vegetables, legumes and beans, whole grains, fat free and low fat dairy products, seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, soy products, and healthy oils were emphasized as the “best choices,” and saturated fats, trans fats, sodium and added sugars should be consumed in very limited amounts. Obviously portion sizes and number of portions daily from this healthy list of food choices depends on age, gender and whether a person needs to shed weight or maintain weight after significant weight loss.

The new guidelines were updated in order to encourage healthier eating patterns across all age groups. The goal was to place a focus on food variety, nutrient density, and the amount of food consumed daily. The guidelines were very specific with regards to certain food ingredients, putting clear daily calorie limits on added sugar, saturated fats (trans fats have mostly been banned or dropped from foods), sodium, and alcohol. As a parent, though, you face daily ads on the TV, radio, the internet, and in stores, luring you to buy foods for your kids. You also face pressure from your own children who are exposed to food ads, telling them to eat cereals, snacks, and foods that may not be healthy, though the package claims try to convince you that they are.

Prior reports from the Rudd Center have criticized cereals, sugary soda ads, and the American Psychological Association has released numerous reports on the impact of food advertising on childhood obesity. This new Rudd Center report suggests that a big part of the burden should rest on food manufacturers. The report recommends a voluntarily expansion of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative to improve food ads that target children as well as babies and toddlers, because parents can easily fall prey to deceptive ads.

Cookie bars, cereal bars, and baby and toddler snack foods like fruit snacks are notoriously devoid of nutrients, though the package may declare otherwise.

The Rudd Center examined publicly available data for marketing in 2015, nutrition content and product packaging in April to June of 2016, for products specifically marketed for babies and toddlers in the U.S. Out of 80 snacks that the Rudd Center evaluated, only four met a Nutrition Profile Index score of 64, which is the cut off for foods that can be advertised to kids in the UK. Both the U.S. and UK have alarming rates of childhood obesity, and governments in both countries are focused on trying to improve the nutrition content of the “early age diet.”

The Rudd Center also found that 50 percent of baby snacks and 83 percent of children snacks have “added sugars,” which the WHO and American Academy of Pediatrics agree should NOT be in foods marketed to the “under age two” group.

Unfortunately, many of these foods featured nutrition-related messaging like:

  • Contains real fruit

  • Natural

  • Organic

  • Fruit juice added

  • Natural sweeteners

  • Contains whole grains

  • Delights tiny taste buds

  • Encourages self-feeding

These terms have very little meaning in the context of how nutrient-dense a food may be. They lure a parent to believe that they are superior in quality and good substitutes for fruits, vegetables and other healthy real foods, when in fact, they are not. Foods in the baby and toddler group had the highest number of health message ads on food labels.

A new baby and toddler category, the emergency pouch, encourages parents to buy these very portable snacks and foods. Though convenient, it interferes with the natural exploration that older babies and toddlers do with food: namely, using gross and fine motor skills to develop the technique for feeding themselves. The pouch does not “promote young children’s eating development” as most packages claim. The pureed food also doesn’t expose kids to different food colors, textures and tastes, like the plating of real food.

The Rudd report encourages self-regulation in the food industry, but it also is a call to action for parents to become more discerning shoppers and for regulators to engage with more food package messaging oversight.

Here’s a quick list of parent buyer beware when choosing baby and toddler foods:** Cereals** – Look for no added or limited added sugars, whole grains as the first ingredients, some protein.

Fruit snacks – Avoid these unless they are 100 percent dried fruit with nothing else added. Feed kids mostly real fruit, pureed first and then cut up as they get older.

Sweet drinks, flavored milks – If a child is introduced to these types of beverages at a very young age, then plain milk and water will never measure up.

Ice pops – This is basically “frozen sweetened drink” and really has no place in a child’s diet except as an occasional treat. You can make 100 percent juice pops to replace one serving of juice daily in the hot months.

Cheese crackers – These are notoriously full of sodium and highly refined ingredients and often become one of a baby or young toddler’s first finger foods. This product needs heavy ingredient list scrutiny and frankly, shelled edamame beans would be a far healthier swap out. Once the child is older they can pop the beans out of the boiled pods.

Veggie chips –Most are full of sodium, unhealthy fats and contain little in the way of actual vegetables. Use a spiralizer to create raw or cooked veggie noodles that a young child can nibble on.

Granola bars – Full of sugars, refined grains, and a fair amount of dried fruit, they can be too candy-like and caloric for little children. Make a healthy home-made version instead or look for a short simple ingredient list with less than 8 grams of sugar.

Mini deli and cheese packs, frozen mini pizzas – Parents turn to these for convenience as early toddler foods but they are full of sodium and fats and can be too high in calories for older babies and young toddlers. String cheese and some slices or pieces of roasted fresh turkey is a good swap out. In the case of the pizza, homemade using English muffin halves, fresh cheese and low sodium/low sugar tomato sauces is a much better option.

Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert.As a health media personality, she's been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments.

Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”