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Reading between the lines: Popular toddler drinks are not healthy

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It is an exciting time when your baby begins to develop into a toddler. Crawling to cruising and then walking to running — you now have a busy little person on your hands! Your toddler is becoming more independent, and in some instances, more finicky. Welcome to the fussy eating stage! For the majority of parents, cow’s milk is a toddler’s main drink. There are great benefits to drinking milk, as it is a source of nutrients, like calcium and vitamins A and D. However, it is not a great source for iron, as it contains only trace amounts, and if your toddler won’t eat iron-rich foods, you find yourself in a conundrum.

Many parents will purchase toddler drinks to boost intake of iron. But is this the best alternative for a child’s diet that may be lacking in iron-rich foods? Unfortunately, misleading labels on products marketed as “toddler drinks” may confuse parents on whether these products are necessary or doing more harm than good. Often marketed for young children, ages 9 months to 3 years old, the product category of toddler drinks includes transition formulas and toddler milks.

Studies at New York University’s College of Global Public Health and the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut have raised red flags about toddler drinks.

“Our study builds on previous research demonstrating that manufactur­ers’ marketing practices may undermine the diets of very young children,” said Jennifer L. Pomeranz, assistant professor of public health policy and management at NYU’s College of Global Public Health, and the study’s lead author.

The study, published in the journal “Preventive Medicine,” examined policies and regulations on the labeling of toddler drinks and proposed regulations to ensure the appropriate labeling of products. Health experts and pediatricians (both in the United States and internationally) do not recommend the products. According to the comprehensive study, most toddler drinks are composed of powdered milk, corn syrup or sweeteners, and vegetable oil. These products contain more sodium and less protein than cow’s milk, but labeling implies that they are beneficial for children’s nutrition and growth. As advertising for these products increases, so do the concerns regarding their misleading claims.

Many are calling for transparent and truthful labeling that is less confusing for the consumer. This will better enable parents and caregivers of toddlers to make a well-informed decision about the best product for their children.

“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 superior to healthy food and whole milk for toddlers,” said Pomeranz.

According to the study’s authors, toddler drinks are unnecessary and may undermine a nutritious diet, although they are marketed otherwise.

“It is stressed that labels should be clear, transparent, and accurate. The [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] and manufacturers should work together to end the inappropriate labeling of toddler drinks and ensure caregivers have reliable information to nutritiously feed their children,” said Pomeranz. The researchers encourage the Food and Drug Administration to provide more guidance and recommend manufacturers change their labeling practices and support informed consumer decision-making.

Whether you choose to supplement with toddler drinks or solely stick with cow’s milk, remember that toddlers need healthy fats, vitamin D, and calcium, as well as iron-rich foods in their diet. This aids healthy growth, learning, and development. A picky-eating toddler can be given a multivitamin or other calcium-fortified foods, like dairy products, juices, breads, and cereals. Consultation with a pediatrician is encouraged prior to using any new product, which will safeguard your child’s health and maximize their intake of truly nutritious foods.

Shnieka Johnson is an education consultant. She is based in Manhattan where she resides with her husband and son. Contact her via her website: www.shniekajohnson.com.

Updated 3:40 pm, June 8, 2018
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