Are toddler milks just a marketing ploy?
International health experts and paediatricians do not recommend ‘toddler drinks’ claiming that manufacturers’ marketing practices may undermine the diets of very young children — so why are they being so heavily promoted?
The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend that toddlers (from age one) drink cow’s milk in combination with eating healthy foods with the WHO deeming toddler drinks “unnecessary” and “unsuitable”.
Even so, the marketing and labelling of toddler drinks implies that they are beneficial for children’s nutrition and growth.
Toddler drinks — marketed for young children from 9 months to 3 years old — include two types of products: transition formulas (for infants and toddlers 9–24 months) and toddler milks (for children 12–36 months old). Most toddler drinks are primarily composed of powdered milk, added sweeteners and vegetable oil, and contain more sodium and less protein than cow’s milk.
It is probable that misleading labelling on toddler formulas and milks confuses parents about their healthfulness or necessity according to a recent study by researchers at the NYU College of Global Public Health and the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut.
In order to foster healthy toddler diets, the researchers recommend that the Food and Drug Administration should provide guidance or propose regulations to ensure the appropriate labelling of toddler drinks.
The ethics of toddler drink marketing harks back to the ‘olden days’ when clever marketing promoted formula as preferable to breast milk for babies. Advertising spend on promoting toddler drinks is increasing and public health experts are starting to raise concerns about questionable claims and other labelling practices on toddler drinks. Messages that imply that toddler drinks are necessary for toddlers’ growth and mental performance, and provide a solution for picky eaters are considered particularly concerning.
The NYU study, published in the journal Preventive Medicine, examines how US policies and regulations can support clear and truthful labelling of toddler drinks.
Previous research has highlighted that common marketing and labelling practices for infant formula may mislead parents to believe that these products provide benefits over breastfeeding.
The current study evaluated toddler drink labelling practices and assessed policy strategies to support transparent and truthful labelling, enabling caregivers to make well-informed decisions about feeding their children. In conducting legal research on US food label laws and regulations, the researchers found distinct policies for infant formulas, but nothing specific to toddler drinks.
The researchers then visited stores to collect and evaluate toddler drink packages, including nutrition labels and claims. They noted that toddler drinks go by a variety of names (“toddler formula”, “toddler drink”, “toddler milk” or “milk drink”), which could be confusing for consumers.
The research team observed that all toddler drink labels they examined made at least one health or nutrition claim, and nearly all made multiple claims.
“All product labels made claims related to nutrition and health, and many made claims about expert recommendations that may lead caregivers to believe these products are necessary and healthy. In fact, they are not recommended by health experts, as there is no evidence that they are nutritionally marketing, and labelling of toddler drinks implies that they are beneficial for children’s nutrition and growth,” said Jennifer L Pomeranz, Assistant Professor of Public Health Policy and Management at NYU College of Global Public Health and the study’s lead author.
The researchers also compared toddler drink labels with the same brand’s infant formula labels and found that most toddler drink labels used similar colours, branding, logos and graphics. These similarities could increase the likelihood of confusion among consumers about the appropriateness of serving toddler drinks and the differences between infant formulas and toddler drinks.
“Toddler drinks are unnecessary and may undermine a nutritious diet, yet manufacturers have expanded their marketing of these products. Therefore, it is important for labels to be clear, transparent and accurate,” Pomeranz said. “The FDA and manufacturers should work together to end the inappropriate labelling of toddler drinks and ensure caregivers have reliable information to nutritiously feed their children.”
The researchers suggest that the FDA should provide guidance or regulations on toddler drink labelling, which could include:
- requiring statements to consult a physician prior to toddler milk use;
- the use of appropriate health and nutrition claims;
- labelling and packaging should clearly differentiate infant formula, transition formula and toddler milks;
- manufacturers should agree on and consistently use one name for similar products;
- questionable health claims and images of bottles should not be permitted.
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