Study leader Mary Cogswell, of the Division of Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and her team used a 2012 US nutrient database to analyze the sodium and sugar content of 1,074 commercial foods for infants and toddlers.
Within their analysis, they included pre-packaged dinners – such as macaroni cheese and mini hot dogs – snacks, fruits, vegetables, dry cereals, juices, and desserts.
Their findings, published in the journal Pediatrics, revealed that 72% of the pre-packaged toddler meals assessed were high in sodium, containing an average of 361 milligrams (mg) per serving.
According to recommendations set by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), toddlers should consume no more than 210 mg of sodium per food serving, meaning that the pre-packaged toddler meals analyzed in this study contained sodium at levels almost 1.5 times higher.
IOM recommendations for school foods also state that children should consume no more than 35% of calories from sugar in each food portion.
However, the researchers found that dry fruit-based snacks included in the study contained an average of 60 g of sugar per portion, meaning around 66% of calories were coming from sugar. Sugar made up an average of 47% of calories from mixed grains and fruit and accounted for more than 35% of calories in dairy-based desserts.
At least one added sugar – including glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, and dextrose – was found in around 32% of pre-packaged infant and toddler meals, as well as the majority of dry-based fruit snacks, cereal/breakfast bars and pastries, desserts and fruit juices.
While around 7 out of 10 meals for toddlers contained too much sodium, the researchers found most foods for infants were low in sodium – only two of the 657 infant foods contained sodium at levels higher than 140 mg per serving.
High salt and sugar levels in commercial infant, toddler foods ‘a potential concern’
It is estimated that 79% of children aged 1-3 years in the US consume sodium at levels higher than the recommended 1,500 mg per day, which can increase the risk of high blood pressure – a risk factor for heart attack and stroke. Approximately 1 in 6 children in the US has high blood pressure.
In addition, a 2009 study from the American Heart Association found that the average child aged 1-3 years consumes around 12 teaspoons of sugar each day, while recommendations from the organization state that children this age should consume no more than 3-4 teaspoons of sugar each day.
As well as high blood pressure, excess sugar and salt intake can increase the risk of obesity. In the US, more than a third of children and adolescents are obese.
As such, Cogswell and her team say the high sodium or sugar content of infant and toddler foods assessed in their study are worrying:
“Commercial toddler foods and infant or toddler snacks, desserts and juice drinks are of potential concern due to sodium or sugar content. Pediatricians should advise parents to look carefully at labels when selecting commercial toddler foods and to limit salty snacks, sweet desserts and juice drinks.”
The researchers add that excess intake of foods high in sugar and salt early in life may cause children to develop a preference for such foods later in life, increasing their risk of obesity and related diseases. Limiting the intake of these foods for infants and toddlers, however, may reduce this risk.