Great news: You’re feeding your toddler crap

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There are several reasons why I decided at an early age that I would never have children, and one of them is the stress. There’s so much responsibility inherent in raising a child. You have to feed it and shelter it and nurture it and give it enough education so it gets into a good college and enough love so it doesn’t grow up to be a complete sociopath. It’s a lot. Plus you have to feed and take care of yourself, too, and from the moment you announce you’re expecting, everyone is judging you. Parents, I salute you all.

Anyway, if I were a parent, this article about toddler nutrition that ran yesterday in The Washington Post would just stress me out more. Basically, a lot of toddler food that promises to be healthy and nutritious and make a child stronger and smarter is as full of sugar and fat as most adult junk foods. It’s just smaller and maybe comes in a cute little plastic tube. New product launches in the toddler grocery aisle quadrupled between 2005 and 2018, and according to Billy Roberts, senior analyst of food and drink at the market research firm Mintel, most of them are extremely high in sugar. “You wouldn’t give your toddler Cheetos,” Jennifer Harris, a researcher at the University of Connecticut who studies food marketing, told the Post, “but you would give them Gerber puffs, which are basically the same thing.”

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Toddler milk, marketed as an alternative to cow’s milk for picky eaters that also happens to look a lot like infant formula except cheaper, is also high in sugar. Families trying to economize might try to substitute toddler milk for formula. “We’ve done a paper on what the FDA should establish for toddler milks, because there’s no statement of identity and they are called all different things,” Harris told the Post. “There needs to be clear labeling about the ages the product is intended for, and they need to make sure the packet looks different from infant formula.”

There are healthy alternatives to toddler junk food, but like healthy alternatives to grown-up junk food, they are expensive and many of them have not yet been approved by the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which helps feed about half of the 4 million babies born in the U.S. every year.

The story ends, alarmingly, with a quote from Rick Klauser, chief executive of vegetable-forward Sprout Foods: “By 18 months, a child’s nutrition journey is more or less forged.”

This might be taken with a grain of salt (so to speak) since Klauser has a vested interest in selling his own brand of food, but it’s just another thing that would freak me out if I were a parent. Unfortunately, the article is short on practical suggestions besides the usual “Read the damned nutritional label.” And even that is suspect, because certain label claims aren’t closely regulated.

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About the author

Aimee Levitt

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.