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Parents, beware! High sugar, sodium content in snacks commercially marketed to children — new study |

Health And Family

Parents, beware! High sugar, sodium content in snacks commercially marketed to children — new study

Dolly Dy-Zulueta -
Parents, beware! High sugar, sodium content in snacks commercially marketed to children â new study
Children join a feeding program at a school in Marawi City in 2017.
The STAR / John Unson, file

MANILA, Philippines — There's nothing like freshly cooked food for the family to partake, especially the children, who have big appetites and are constantly hungry and in need of food to snack on between meals.

We try to protect our children from commercially available food that may contain potentially harmful substances or too much salt and sugar content that is way above the daily limit and may impact their health during their adult years. But they are everywhere, and some of them even make misleading claims that lead parents to think they are actually good for kids. However, a recent study across seven countries in Southeast Asia shows an alarming 72% of snacks and finger foods marketed at children under age 3 contain added sugars and sweeteners.

This new study, which was released on December 14, 2023, reveals high sugar and salt content in commercially produced packaged foods marketed for children aged 6 months to 3 years in Southeast Asia, as well as widespread use of potentially misleading and deceptive labelling and lack of strict regulations around product composition and sale.

The study, supported by UNICEF and partners of the Consortium for Improving Complementary Foods in Southeast Asia (COMMIT), has assessed more than 1,600 infant cereals, purées, pouches, snacks, and ready-to-eat meals marketed at young children in Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR (Laos, or Lao People’s Democratic Republic), Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. It has also studied consumer behaviors and existing regulations in the seven countries.

The study has found that nearly half of the products studied (44%) include added sugars and sweeteners; among snacks and finger foods, this rose to 72%. When it comes to salt content, more than one third of the products studied include more sodium than what’s recommended. Furthermore, nearly 90% of labels on the products studied include potentially misleading or deceptive claims about their composition.

“Far too many of the food products being marketed to the youngest girls and boys are unhealthy and labelled in ways that may deceive parents. Children and their parents deserve better,” says Debora Comini, UNICEF Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific.

Commercially produced complementary foods are a common part of the diets of young children in Southeast Asia, with 79% of mothers from urban centers reporting they provide these foods to their young children daily. Across Southeast Asia, sales of commercially produced complementary foods have risen by 45% in the past five years.

In terms of regulation, the study notes that none of the seven countries have national policies on the composition and labelling of commercially produced complementary foods which follow all international guidance. Several countries have been found to have no legal measures to regulate the sugar or salt content of commercially produced complementary foods. Countries with maximum sugar or salt thresholds often only apply them to certain categories, such as cereals or snack foods, and the thresholds are higher than international standards. Sugar intake early in life can lead to cavities, weight gain, and poor eating habits, while high sodium intake can lead to high blood pressure, with impacts that can be lifelong.

The study has also found an extensive use of claims, with claims about product composition or nutrient content appearing on nearly 90% of the products assessed. Common claims appearing on products with high sugar, salt or fat content include “all natural”, “good source of vitamins”, and “no artificial ingredients.” Further, in Cambodia, the Philippines and Lao PDR, majority of products are only labelled in English or non-national languages, thus limiting the ability of parents to make informed choices to ensure nutritious diets for their children.

“Governments and food producers can—and must!—play a stronger role in safeguarding the health of the youngest children,” Comini stresses. “Good nutrition in the first years of life helps children thrive, fuelling prosperous families, productive work forces and powerful economies. On the other hand, poor nutrition increases the risk of stunting, wasting, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight, obesity and disease, ultimately coming at great cost to children and their families, but also to healthcare systems and economies.”

UNICEF and COMMIT partners are calling for:

  • Improved government regulations for commercially produced complementary foods, including prohibiting the use of added sugars and sweeteners, limiting sugar and sodium content, and prohibiting misleading marketing and labelling
  • Strict government monitoring and enforcement of national regulations on commercially produced complementary foods
  • Support for parents to provide a diverse array of nutritious food to their youngest children and navigate deceptive marketing and labelling practices.

COMMIT is a joint initiative by the Access to Nutrition Initiative; Alive & Thrive; Helen Keller International; JB Consultancy; School of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Leeds; UNICEF East Asia Pacific Regional Office; and World Food Programme Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau.

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