Baby food companies almost exclusively market their junkiest food, even though they also make and sell perfectly nutritious, fruit-and-vegetable-based foods.
"Companies spend advertising dollars promoting products that are not recommended for young children," says a new report from the Rudd Center at the University of Connecticut including sugar-sweetened toddler milk (often marketed as toddler 'formula'), nutritionally poor snack food, and a high-calorie liquid nutrition supplement aimed at young children."
The report, called Baby Food FACTS, looked at companies spending more than $100,000 per year on advertising toddler foods, and it is, indeed, full of interesting facts. For instance, 99% of ad spending comes from just three companies, promoting eight brands. Nestlé is on that list, of course, along with Abbott (Pediasure, Similac) and Mead Johnson (Enfagrow, Enfamil).
Of this spending, 60% went on pushing products that aren't recommended for young kids. The placing of these ads is also interesting: Formula ads target the internet, especially social media and "mom blogs." At the same time, TV-ad spending has dropped from $30 million to just $10 million from 2011 to 2015.
The marketing of junk to youngsters doesn't stop at advertising, either. Let's take a look at snacks for toddlers. Snack food labels try to bamboozle with information, carrying "more nutrition-related messages than other types of food," says the report, surely intended to reassure the parent that they are buying something nutritious. Yet despite this overload of info, the product names didn't reflect what was actually in the food in 40% of toddler snacks. Worse, most of these fruit-based snacks (almost all of which contain added sugar) are little more than purees. And guess what? "Pureed food is not recommended for children older than one year."
At each step, this report shows, the food manufacturers hawk pureed junk at our kids, almost always going against the recommendations of child nutrition experts. Babies, they say, should never be given sweetened milk products, and should only take fortified milks when ill, or in special need. Toddlers should eat the same food as adults from age 2, and they should be developing fine-motor skills, and learning about the tastes and textures of real foods, not drinking blended mush.
Almost without exception, a kids' food product will contain extra sugar, or other additions that your child doesn't need. And that's before we get to the issue of packing a dose of fruit in a plastic pouch with a plastic nozzle, instead of just keeping it in its own protective skin.
But why do these companies market the sugary stuff to mothers, instead of the healthy stuff they also sell? The report doesn't offer an answer, but the obvious conclusion is a compelling one. If you get kids used to eating healthy, pure vegetables and fruits, then they may develop a life-long habit of eating natural produce. But if you get them on processed foods early, then they'll be on them for life. Just think how strong the nostalgic pull is for the fruits of your childhood. That's a powerful ally when selling junk food to adults.
While "the majority of baby and toddler food products offered by companies in this report are nutritious options for young children," the report says, "many of the products and marketing messages documented in this report do not support expert recommendations for encouraging lifelong healthy dietary preferences and eating habits."