Earlier this month, an advisory committee released an assessment of nutrition science that will inform the upcoming 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Updated every five years by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS), the guidelines provide advice to everyone in America, and act as the foundation for several key federal nutrition programs.
For the first time, those guidelines will include nutrition advice for children from birth to two years of age. One of the conclusions of the advisory committee is that infants and toddlers under age 2 should avoid drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, a recommendation supported by leading health organizations.
Health experts currently recommend breastfeeding until a child is at least one year old, and from about 6 months, teaching children to eat a healthy family diet, including a variety of fruits and vegetables and plain water and milk to drink.
Yet, many caregivers find it difficult to implement this advice—from the many challenges of breastfeeding to picky toddlers whose favorite word is “no.” Often conflicting advice from family, friends, pediatricians, social media and others confuses things even more.
But formula manufacturers claim to offer the solution: Infant formula that is “closest to breastmilk” and milk-based drinks for toddlers (known as toddler milk or toddler formula) that claim to promote young children’s nutrition, development and growth. These claims, however, directly contradict expert recommendations and are not backed by scientific evidence.
Furthermore, companies spend a lot of money in marketing to convince parents that they have young children’s best interests in mind. And according to recent research from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, these marketing claims work. Sixty percent of toddler caregivers surveyed agreed with unsupported claims that toddler milk provides nutrition toddlers don’t get in other foods.
Researchers recently took a closer look at infant formula and toddler milk marketing claims and how they influence caregivers. Their study, which was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, surveyed 1,645 U.S. parents and other primary caregivers of infants and toddlers to measure their agreement with common marketing claims on these toddler drinks, identify products they served their child, and assess the relationship between agreement with claims and whether they served the products to their child.
We talked to Jennifer Harris, PhD, MBA, one of the study’s authors and a senior research advisor, marketing initiatives, at the UConn Rudd Center, to find out more about their findings—and what the implications are for young children’s health. Harris is also an author of a research brief published by Healthy Eating Research that examines opportunities to address some of the harmful marketing practices behind these drinks.