Are Food Companies Pushing the Wrong Foods on Babies?

A study found that a large percentage of marketing dollars go towards pushing unhealthy baby food. Should that change?

Baby Eating Ice Cream Leah-Anne Thompson/Shutterstock
Have you ever wondered why you see so many ads for sugary, processed junk food aimed at your children and so few for healthy, natural snacks? If so, this might explain things a bit: A recent study found that major companies invest most of their marketing dollars towards publicizing unhealthy food items for babies and toddlers. 

Researchers from the University of Connecticut's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that U.S. companies spent a whopping $77 million on marketing efforts for food products geared towards babies and toddlers. The good news? The majority of the foods manufactured were found to be healthy options (think pureed fruits and veggies). The bad news? There are some unhealthy choices produced as well...and nearly 60 percent of marketing dollars went towards promoting the latter.

Just over half of the total marketing dollars were designated for unhealthy products, such as sugary toddler drinks or meal supplements, which might not sound like a lot—but then, you have to consider that the junk food made up a much smaller quota of all the food sold, which makes this finding incredibly significant.

This news speaks volumes about our societal relationship to unhealthy food, and it may also influence parents to buy and give their kids these less-nutritious foods. “It’s easy to make parents anxious about finicky eating and send them the message that their child might need these products,” lead researcher Jennifer Harris told HealthDay. The study is still preliminary, but the findings were presented at the American Public Health Association's annual meeting. 

On some level, this finding makes sense: After all, most moms probably have plenty of incentive to stock up on the healthy stuff. Let's also not forget that a lot of those "gimmicky" snacks (character-shaped candy, anyone?) contain a ton of sugar and chemicals. And often, they're presented to be much healthier than they really are—as Harris pointed out, brands seem to slap labels like "brain-nourishing" on products, despite the fact that there's no scientific grounding to support this claim.

Harris called out sugary toddler milks, cookies, sweetened cereals and "puffs" as some of the unhealthy offenders. While these snacks have plenty of sugar, they don't really have many nutrients. 

If you're looking to avoid falling into this trap, take Harris's advice: Expose your children to a variety of healthy foods, especially veggies, so they develop a taste for them....and don't focus so much on only giving your little ones foods that are marketed towards children. "When they're [two] years old, they can just be eating what the rest of the family is eating," Harris said. "They don't need special 'toddler' foods. That's cheaper for families, too."