How to Diet: Store-Bought Toddler Foods Too High in Sugar and Sodium, CDC Warns

More than seven in ten packaged meals for young children have too much sodium and more than a third of their cereal bars and breakfast pastries contain too much sugar, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported this week in a survey of commercial foods.

A salty, sweet diet early in life can reprogram the taste buds to seek out those kinds of foods. That may create loyal, lifelong customers for food manufacturers, but makes it harder for kids to avoid problems with extra weight and high blood pressure as they grow up.

“This study is bad news for future generations, as parents unsuspectingly serve their toddlers too-salty  and too-sugary foods,” says Jim O’Hara, Health Promotion Policy Director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.


CDC analyzed a 2012 database of the ingredients in more than 1,000 packaged foods and drinks sold in the United States for infants and toddlers. The study was published in the journal Pediatrics and is available online.

The good news is that most of the foods intended for infants up to one year of age are low in sodium and do not contain added sugars.

But manufacturers more than make up for that in the foods they sell for toddlers aged one through three.

Of 72 toddler meals, such as macaroni & cheese or canned pasta, 52 –nearly three-quarters– had more than 210 mg of sodium per serving. That’s the limit recommended for good health by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). The 72 meals averaged 361 mg. The IOM recommends no more than a total of 1,500 mg a day.

Two in five of the cereal bars and breakfast pastries marketed for toddlers derived more than 35 percent of their calories from added sugar. In fact, manufacturers added sugar to most of their toddler foods. What especially surprised the CDC researchers was that sugar was even added to one-third of the meals.

Because eating foods with added sugar increases the risk of being overweight, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting these sugars to no more than 5 percent to 15 percent of the calories a person eats in a day. Toddlers already get about 13 percent.

Consuming too much sodium in foods increases the risk of developing high blood pressure early in life. Children with high blood pressure are more likely to suffer hypertension and cardiovascular disease as adults.

Until policies are put in place to reduce sodium in the food supply, parents and other caregivers need to be vigilant to protect their children from unhealthy foods. Reading the Nutrition Facts label is a first line of defense. For parents of infants and toddlers, it is also important to limit salty snacks, sweet desserts, and sugary drinks.

As kids grow older, you can also involve them in preparing delicious and healthy meals and snacks. Teaching children to cook means a lifetime of healthier meals. Try, for example, this Fish Taco recipe from our Get Cookin’, Kids! recipe booklet:

Tacos & Toppings

10 6-inch soft corn tortillas, warmed
1 recipe crispy fish (listed below)
1 recipe cilantro sauce (listed below)
1 avocado, peeled and cut into chunks
1 cup cherry tomatoes, chopped
2 cups finely shredded red cabbage

To Assemble:

Top each tortilla with fish, cilantro sauce, avocado, tomato, and cabbage, then fold in half.

Crispy Fish:

1 cup cornmeal
1½ lbs. firm, white fish, cut into 1-inch strips across the width of the fish
¼ tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. chili powder, optional
¼ cup canola oil

Spread the cornmeal on a plate. Season the fish with salt and chili powder, if using. Pat the fish in the cornmeal to coat on all sides. Heat the oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Fry in the oil until the cornmeal is lightly browned and fish is cooked through, 1-2 minutes per side. Remove and drain on paper towels.

Cilantro Sauce:

¼ cup low-fat sour cream
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded
2 Tbs. fresh lime juice
20 sprigs cilantro
¼ tsp. kosher salt

In a food processor or blender, puree the sour cream, jalapeno, lime juice, cilantro, and salt. Put in a small bowl and set aside.

Serving Size: makes 10 tacos

Nutrition Information for 1 Taco:
Calories: 180
Total Fat: 7 g
Saturated Fat: 1 g
Protein: 8 g
Carbohydrates: 22 g
Fiber: 4 g
Sodium: 140 mg

Fish Tacos

Other relevant links:

• 9 tips for getting kids to eat veggies. See: Making Vegetables a Hit with Kids

• Food safety considerations you should be aware of if you have young kids or grandchildren. See: Food Safety Tips for Young Children

• Helpful tips about breast milk, formula, and baby food. See: Food Safety for Infants

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