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New Research Finds Toddler Milks Are BS and Totally Misleading

Photograph by Twenty20

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization (WHO) both recommend that beginning at age 1, children drink regular ol’ cow’s milk. So, why is there so much shelf space at the market devoted to what's often marketed as "toddler milk"?

The labeling on these products—marketed for children from 9 months to 3 years—would have parents believe they contain some kind of nutritional purpose or provide benefits above and beyond what cow’s milk does. Well, according to a new study published in the journal Preventive Medicine, that's total B.S.

According to the study's lead author Jennifer L. Pomeranz, “Our study builds on previous research demonstrating that manufacturers' marketing practices may undermine the diets of very young children,”

The study reviewed the packaging of toddler drinks and concluded that all of their labels included at least one health or nutritional claim and almost all of them made multiple claims.

“All product labels made claims related to nutrition and health, and many made claims about expert recommendations that may lead caregivers to believe these products are necessary and healthy. In fact, they are not recommended by health experts, as there is no evidence that they are nutritionally superior to healthy food and whole milk for toddlers,” says Pomeranz.

The WHO goes as far as saying that toddler milks should not be promoted. The American Academy of Family Physicians agrees and says toddler drinks don’t provide any benefits over cow’s milk paired with a nutritious diet.

So, what gives? Why do toddler milks even exist? Could it just be a way to prey on the fears and wallets of parents of picky eaters? Perhaps. What is certain is that these companies have created a previously inexistent feeding period in a child’s life that they can sell products for whether they are necessary or not.

One of the most interesting takeaways from the study is that the FDA sets standards for the labeling of infant formulas, but once the formula is for a child that is older than 12 months, those standards do not apply. Without the same strict regulations imposed on infant formulas, the formulas being marketed to toddlers contain more sugar, fat and sodium.

What's even more concerning, these products are found in the baby formula aisles at stores and they look a lot like baby formula. Oh, and they're also cheaper than infant formula. Is it really that hard to imagine that given the similarities in packaging, a sleep-deprived parent comparing prices might reach for the cheaper toddler milk for their infant instead of the more expensive infant formula?

Unsurprisingly, the researchers are encouraging the FDA to create regulations for toddler drink labeling. These regulations could include requiring manufacturers to include language that says to consult a physician before using, only make substantiated health and nutrition claims and clearly differentiate between infant formula, transition formula and toddler milks.

“Toddler drinks are unnecessary and may undermine a nutritious diet, yet manufacturers have expanded their marketing of these products. Therefore, it is important for labels to be clear, transparent, and accurate,” Pomeranz says. “The FDA and manufacturers should work together to end the inappropriate labeling of toddler drinks and ensure caregivers have reliable information to nutritiously feed their children.”

Until the FDA steps up, it’s buyer beware, which is why it’s important to know that toddler milks aren’t necessary, are not a substitute for breast milk or infant formula, and are not more beneficial than cow’s milk paired with a nutritious diet. If you choose to use them, that's your decision, but it should be well-informed choice and not a mistake or a result of misleading claims, packaging or marketing.

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