Parents Beware: 89 Percent of Children’s Food Products Aren’t Healthy, But 62 Percent Claim They Are

Nine out of ten regular food items aimed specifically at children have a poor nutritional content because of high levels of sugar, fat or sodium, according to a detailed study of 367 products published in the July issue of the UK-based journal, Obesity Reviews.

Just under 70 percent of the products studied (which specifically excluded soft drinks and confectionery and bakery items)derived a high proportion of their calories from sugar. Approximately one in five (23 percent) had high fat levels, and 17 percent had high sodium levels. Despite this, 62 percent of the foods with poor nutritional quality (PNQ) made positive claims about their nutritional value on the front of the packet.

“Parents may have questions about which packaged foods are good for their children. Yet certain nutritional claims may add to the confusion, as they can mislead people into thinking the whole product is nutritious” said Professor Elliot, who led the study.

Only 11 percent of the products Elliott and her colleagues evaluated provided good nutritional value in line with the criteria laid down by the U.S. based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a non-profit agency that received the Food and Drug Administration’s highest honor in 2007.

The CSPI nutritional standards state that healthy food should not derive more than 35 percent of its calories from fat(excluding nuts and seed and nut butters) and should have no more than 35 percent added sugar by weight. They also provide guidance on sodium levels, ranging from 230 mg per portion for snacks to 770 mg per portion for pre-prepared meals.

CSPI’s standards are adapted from those developed by the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity, a coalition of some 300 health and nutrition organizations in the U.S. The organization states that its standards represent a compromise approach. They allow for the marketing of products that may not be nutritionally ideal, but that provide some positive nutritional benefits that could help children meet the U.S. Government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The 367 products included in the study were bought in December 2005 from a national supermarket chain stocking 50,000 food and non-food items. Each had to meet very specific criteria.

Each product was subjected to a 36-point analysis that included the nutritional content and how the packaging was designed to appeal to children and their parents.

Key findings included:

  • 63 percent of the products surveyed made some sort of nutritional claim, including 62 percent of the products that could be classed as poorly nutritious due to high levels of sugar, fat or sodium. A low percentage (eight percent) carried some kind of nutrition mark or seal. Other claims included that the products were low fat, were a source of calcium, contained no artificial flavors or colors, or provided a number of essential nutrients.
  • Products with high sugar levels accounted for 70 percent of the goods with PNQ. Despite this, 68 percent included some sort of nutritional claim on the package, such as identifying the food as a source of whole grains, a source of iron, or low in fat. Cereals and fruit snacks were particularly likely to make nutritional claims and have high levels of sugar.
  • Just under 23 percent of the products had PNQ because of their high fat content. Yet 37 percent had some sort of nutritional claim on the package. For example, peanut butter mixed with chocolate claimed to be a “source of six essential nutrients,” and a pizza product claimed to be a “source of calcium.”

“If parents see a product that makes specific nutritional claims, they may assume that the whole product is nutritious, and our study has shown that that is definitely not true in the vast majority of cases,” concluded Professor Elliott. “Using cartoon characters engaged in sport can also create the illusion of a healthy product.”

Source: Assessing “fun foods”: nutritional content and analysis of supermarket foods targeted at children. Elliott C. Obesity Reviews. 9.43, pp 368-377 (July 2008).

Obesity Reviews is a bi-monthly publication that includes papers from all disciplines related to obesity. The official review journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, it is published by Wiley-Blackwell.

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