Ready-made baby and toddler foods are a common choice for Australian families, as one in three young children eat these foods at least once a week, and one in five eat them most days.
However, many parents are unaware that these foods are often not healthy, and the majority falsely believe they are regulated by the government to ensure they provide good nutrition for children.
The latest results from the RCH National Child Health Poll show that for one in every four babies who eat ready-made foods, these products make up most or all of their diet, with more than half of Australian parents believing that ready-made baby and toddler foods contain ingredients to make sure children grow and develop well.
The latest RCH poll surveyed 1,023 parents in July 2021, providing data on 1,210 children aged from four months to less than five years.
- One in five children aged less than five years eat commercial ready-made foods most days of the week, with a further one in three having these foods at least once a week.
- The main reasons parents choose to give their children ready-made foods are convenience (92%), taste (78%), cost (68%) and because they believe it is a healthy choice (73%).
- More than half of parents think ready-made baby and toddler foods contain ingredients to make sure children grow and develop well, with half of parents believing ready-made foods are healthier than, or as healthy as, food made at home.
- Two in five parents of babies and/or toddlers believe that toddlers have different nutritional needs to the rest of the family meaning they cannot eat regular family food.
- The majority of parents falsely believe that the content of commercial ready-made food products for infants and toddlers is tightly regulated by government to ensure that it provides good nutrition for children.
Dr Anthea Rhodes, Paediatrician and Poll Director, said while parents commonly choose these foods for convenience, building awareness about the lack of strict regulation of the content of these foods will help parents to make informed choices.
‘Ready-made foods are an easy meal or snack option for young children, especially with busy modern family life.
‘Through this poll we found convenience was the number one reason parents choose ready-made foods, followed by taste and cost.
‘We also found that 73 per cent of parents believe that ready-made baby and toddler foods provide good nutrition for their children, particularly because a lot of them are marketed as natural and healthy, which can be misleading. This is a really concerning finding,’ said Dr Rhodes.
‘These foods often contain high levels of harmful sugars, which can affect a child’s taste preferences for life and put them at risk of ongoing high sugar intake. This can cause tooth decay, unhealthy weight gain and other health problems.’
Tight regulation a myth
The latest poll found that 87% of parents recognise that eating habits in early childhood have a life-long impact on health, but most falsely believe that ready-made baby and toddler foods are tightly regulated in Australia.
‘What we found in this poll is that most parents believe there are laws about what can be put in ready-made foods for babies and toddlers to ensure these products are healthy.
‘In fact, this is not the case in Australia, with limited regulation of these products for babies and no specific regulations for toddler products.
‘Parents told us they want laws to regulate these food products, with 90% of parents saying they would support laws to regulate the contents and marketing of ready-made foods for babies and toddlers,’ said Dr Rhodes.
‘Parents deserve to know what’s really in these products, without food manufacturers confusing them and using marketing depicting ready-made foods as healthier than they are. We need to support and empower parents to make fully informed choices about what they feed their children.’
Higher standards needed
Jane Martin, Executive Manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition, welcomed the findings, adding she would like to see higher standards applied to packaging, labelling and ingredients in foods for infants and toddlers.
‘All children need nourishing food that sets them up for life-long good health,’ Ms Martin said.
‘Yet currently, manufacturers of products for our youngest consumers are hoodwinking parents, marketing baby and toddler ready-made foods as nutritious, when many are far from it. We need government measures to stop companies using potentially misleading labelling and promotions, while limiting ingredients such as harmful sugars that are often added to these foods,’ she said.
‘Government needs to act now to set higher standards for the composition, labelling and promotion of baby and toddler ready-made foods to protect Australia’s youngest children.’
The RCH Poll was conducted in July 2021 and data were collected from a nationally representative sample of Australian parents. Visit rchpoll.org.au to read the full report: Ready-made baby foods: Do parents know the facts?