“Parents are under the false assumption that foods prepared for kids will be held to a higher standard, but that’s really not the case,” says Nish Saxena, a registered dietitian in Toronto.
In the study, commercial foods for babies younger than one year old, including infant meals, vegetables, fruit and cereals, checked out OK, with low sodium levels and no added sugars. But packaged foods for toddlers were an entirely different story.
Researchers analyzed more than 1,000 products, including cereal, granola bars, crackers and entrées and concluded that the majority contained elevated levels of both salt and sugar. About 72 percent of toddler dinners were high in sodium, with more than 210 milligrams per serving (foods with less than 140 mg are considered low sodium). Another 32 percent of toddler cereal bars, snacks and desserts contained more than 35 percent calories from sugar—seven times the recommended limit, according to Saxena.
Children who consume too much sugar and salt are at higher risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, type-2 diabetes and obesity in later childhood and even later in adulthood, because the foods that kids become accustomed can set life-long eating patterns, Saxena says. “There’s more research now than ever showing the long-term effect of palette development from infancy to age three,” she says. Kids’ taste buds develop in response to the strong flavours in packaged foods, she adds, which can make it more difficult for them to taste and enjoy vegetables, meats and even fresh fruit.
“As a parent of a preschooler and a toddler I completely understand that packaged foods are necessary sometimes,” Saxena says. “I don’t want parents to beat themselves up about the choices they make, “she says. “The key is to arm yourself with the right information when you’re comparing packages at the grocery store.”
Study the nutrition panel on packaged foods with these tips in mind.
Beware long lists of ingredients. Salt can end up further down the list if a cracker contains several types of flours, for example, but that doesn’t mean it’s low in sodium.
Do the math for sugar. Opt for foods where less than five percent of total calories per serving come from sugar. Here’s how to figure it out: Multiply the number of grams of sugar by four, then divide by the number of servings in the package.
Aim low for salt. Five percent sodium is considered low, “but go with the product that contains even less,” says Saxena. “There’s no benefit to your child in getting more salt.”
Don’t be fooled by sugar’s other names. Foods can be sweetened with fruit juice, cane sugar, syrup, honey and malt, but ultimately it’s all sugar.
Looking for some fun foods to cook with your kids? Check out this Cooking with Kids video on making breakfast cups!