Toddler Health Food Claims: What you need to Know

The goal of any corporation is to make more money, often at you and your family’s expense. That’s why food manufacturers dedicate a large budget to marketing. One of the ways that food manufacturers market their products to consumers is through on-package claims. These are words on the front of a package that often highlight the benefits of what’s the product. There is a significant surge in new toddler and baby snack products on the market. And marketers are working hard to reel you into purchasing what appears to be healthy food for your infant or toddler. There are different types of marketing claims on toddler and children’s foods – unregulated and regulated.

This article will cover the laws that regulate food and nutrition labels and the difference between unregulated and regulated claims. I will then break down a popular Gerber snack product’s claim. And then discuss a recent study about how food manufacturers deceive caregivers into purchasing unhealthy products.

common labels on packages to create the appearance of a healthy food
Marketers put claims on foods to create the appearance of healthiness

The Laws that Regulate Food and Nutrition Labels

In order to help keep consumers informed and corporations honest, the FDA has created several laws to help regulate food packaging, including:

Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act

In 1937, an untested drug was given to hundreds of sick patients to treat strep throat infections. That drug was called Sulfanilamide and ended up killing more than 100 people, including many children. This led to the creation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that we know today. This act, created in 1938, allows the government to oversee drugs, food, and cosmetics. This law helps protect consumers.

The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966

Before the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, there was no standard measurements for products. For instance, the same food could have a different amount of food in each package. The consumer would have no idea exact how much they were receiving. This made it especially difficult when purchasing ingredients for a recipe.

With the creation of the act, food packages must have a label stating the:

  • Identity of the product
  • Name and place of business of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor
  • Net weight quantity of contents

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act

Today, we can pick up a food package at the grocery store and access the food label. The food label tells us caloric information, serving sizes, and macro and micronutrient information. This sort of nutrition information was not a requirement on food packaging prior to 1990. Before 1990, consumers were often in the dark regarding nutrition information in food.

Today food packages must contain a food label, telling consumers information about the nutrition of the food.
Today food packages must contain a food label, telling consumers information about the nutrition of the food.

The Nutrition Facts Label for Foods Marketed to Infants or Children ages 1-3 have a Special Nutrition Facts panel

It looks slightly different than the Nutrition Facts Label for adults. First, the serving size for infants and children is not based on the amount they should be eating. It is based on the average amount an infant or child may typically eat.

Secondly, the Percent Daily Value, or DV% indicates how much of a nutrient is in a serving for what an infant or toddler needs in a day. In order for a food to be high in a nutrient, the DV% needs to be greater than 20%. Any DV% less than 5% is low.

And then there are Unregulated and Regulated Claims..

Unregulated claims relate to taste, convenience, or a compelling story. For instance, a hamburger package may have a ” grass-fed ” statement on the front. But, what does “grass-fed” actually mean? It could mean that the animal is eating conventional grain feed with a little bit of grass. Or it may mean the cow has a diet strictly of only grass. But, since it’s unregulated, one doesn’t have a way of knowing which one is correct.

Regulated claims have to meet specific standards by the FDA. Common, regulated claims pertain to nutrient content. A company can label their food “low-calorie” if the product contains less than 40 calories or less per serving.

Or, a company can claim “sugar-free” if the serving size for the food has less than 0.5 g sugar/serving. The claim “no added sugars” and “without added sugars” can be put on the label if no sugar or sugar-containing ingredients such as jam, jelly, or concentrated fruit juice are added during the processing.

Big companies know that parents want to feed their children healthy food…

The problem is that many unhealthy packaged foods commonly have multiple claims on their package but are not healthy. This can lead to lots of confusion for parents and caregivers on what to feed their children.

Let’s breakdown the Gerber Animal Snacks Marketing Claims…

Gerber Snacks for Toddler contain many health claims on the packaging
Gerber Snacks for Toddler contain many health claims on the packaging

10% DV of Iron & Vitamin E per serving

This type of statement may be misleading. You may think that giving your toddler Gerber’s animal crackers will provide a lot of Iron and vitamin E. While it’s nice that the product contains these nutrients, the statement provides an illusion it includes a significant amount. For a food to be “high” in a nutrient, it needs to provide 20% of the daily value. Gerber’s animal crackers contain only 10%. Iron and vitamin E are important for toddlers, but there are better food sources than animal crackers.

Baked with Whole Grains

This statement can be confusing. First off, whole grains contain all parts of the grain. Refined grains have gone through a process to remove the bran and germ. This also removes the healthy fiber, iron, and B vitamins. Whole grains are the best grains for you and your child. While Gerber’s animal crackers contain whole grains, they are not a 100% whole grain product. The crackers also include “enriched flour,” which is not a whole grain. Therefore, this statement makes it appear that you are feeding your toddler a complete grain product. While, yes, it is baked with whole grains, it is also baked with non-whole grains.

How to spot a whole grain food on a food label
How to spot a whole grain food on a food label

Non-GMO Ingredients

A non-GMO label does not mean a food is GMO-free. It means it contains less than 1% of genetically modified ingredients. This labeling doesn’t mean the food is necessarily healthier, better for the environment, or replacing a GMO alternative.

For food to be completely free of GMOs, it must receive verification through the Non-GMO Project Verified organization. It will contain a label that indicates it was confirmed through this organization. Unfortunately, Gerber does not include the Non-GMO Project Verified proof. Although it claims it is GMO-free.

Non-GMO Project Verified Logo
Non-GMO Project Verified Logo

There is currently a class-action lawsuit alleging the claims on Gerber’s products are false relating to GMOs. The 2021 lawsuit accuses Gerber of misleading consumers. The ingredients in the product come from genetically modified crops and protein and/or dairy sources derived from cows raised on genetically modified feed.

Recycle at Store Drop Off

A recyclable product is amazing for the environment. However, this type of marketing sounds good, but is it reasonable? This means that you may not be able to recycle this product with your regular recycling at home. You will need to find a store that will accept the used product. Many people with a toddler may not have the time nor resources to save their trash and drive it to a store to drop off.

Young children learning the importance of recycling

Gerber’s Animal Crackers are NOT a Healthy Snack

Despite the marketing messages on the package label, Gerber’s Animal crackers appear healthier than than are. They contain 2g of added sugar per serving and very little nutritional value. Caregivers should avoid giving foods with added sugar to toddlers and children as much as possible. Check out my article on why added sugar is bad for young children.

3 Reasons to Avoid Added Sugar
Reasons to avoid giving added sugar to toddlers and young children

Toddler and Baby Snack Products are on the Rise

Foods marketed specifically to toddlers and infants are on the rise
Foods marketed specifically to toddlers and infants are on the rise

There is a significant surge in new toddler and baby snack products on the market. According to a Washington Post article, there were four times more product launches in the baby in toddler food aisle in 2018 versus 2005. Most new products are high in sugar and low in good nutrients.

Additionally, there is an increase in lawsuits over mislabeling on packaging. For instance, there have been lawsuits over the word “natural” on food packaging containing the common thickener, xantham gum. While xanthan gum is considered safe, there have been studies that show that in large quantities, it may alter the gut microbiome. And since it’s an additive, why are companies labeling products that contain it as “natural” when it has been added?

In 2014, Gerber was sued over deceptive marketing in their Gerber Good Start Formula.

Regulated nutrition claims increase perceived healthiness of an ultra-processed, discretionary toddler snack food and ultra-processed toddler milks: A discrete choice experiment.

A recent study out of Australia found health claims on toddler food packaging created a healthy perception, increased positively perceived healthiness of unhealthy foods, and led to more consumption.

Participants in the study were at least 18 years old and responsible for grocery shopping. With at least one child between the age of 1-3. Each participant took a 30-minute survey.

The study found that if a toddler snack food has a regulated claim on the package, such as low salt, caregivers’ perception was that the product was healthier than a product without any claims. If a product didn’t have any claim on the package, the perception of the toddler snack food was more likely to be unfavorable.

Caregivers were more likely to rate toddler snacks with specific claims as healthy. Even if the snack was unhealthy. These claims were:

  • natural
  • no added preservatives, colors, or flavors
  • made with real fruit
  • no added sugar
  • no added salt

The study results show that you need to be mindful of food companies’ marketing practices. Especially when it comes to feeding your toddler. Without reading the food label and examining the actual ingredients, picking a snack for a toddler based on claims can mean that your child is eating food that is not as healthy as you think. Think about how healthy the Gerber Animal Crackers appeared. It’s a natural human tendency to perceive something more beneficial for our family when words scream “healthy.” Buyer beware.