Don’t Buy into the ‘Toddler Milk’ Thing, Researchers Say
Heavy marketing pushes sugary “formula” kids don’t need
Sugary milk aimed at toddlers is increasingly being marketed as a transitional drink for kids 12 to 36 months old and coming off breast milk or infant formula. Advertising dollars for the products quadrupled over a 10-year period as sales more than doubled, according to a new study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition. Thing is, “young children do not need them and the added sugars in these drinks raise concerns,” the researchers say.
Toddler milk, often called toddler formula, can be a liquid or powdered product containing corn syrup or other added sweeteners, vegetable oil and salt, and typically has less protein than cow’s milk. The World Health Organization has called them “unnecessary” and “unsuitable” for toddlers, and the American Academy of Family Physicians says they have no advantages over cow’s milk, according to a separate study published in 2018 in the journal Preventive Medicine.
The products are manufactured mostly by the same brands that sell infant formula, and the marketing push comes as infant-formula sales have fallen.
“Using a combination of advertising, retail displays, and lower prices, formula manufacturers were able to increase sales of their own toddler milk brands, and at the same time more than double sales for the entire toddler milk category,” says the study’s lead author, University of Connecticut researcher Yoon-Young Choi, PhD. “This marketing appears to have convinced parents that their children need toddler milks, despite expert advice to the contrary.”
TV ad spending for toddler milk brands jumped from less than $5 million annually in 2006–2008 to more than $20 million annually in 2013–2015, the study finds. Meanwhile, TV ad spending for infant formula brands peaked in 2010 at over $60 million and then declined to approximately $5 million in 2015, as sales of these products declined.
The researchers, from UCONN’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, called the marketing misleading.
“Advertising and package claims imply that they are beneficial for toddlers’ nutrition, cognitive development and growth, without substantial evidence that this is true,” they said in a statement. “Toddler milks are also usually stocked next to the infant formula in the store, with similar brand names and packaging as infant formulas offered by the same manufacturers, which can be confusing to parents and caregivers who can’t always tell the difference between these product categories and the appropriate product for their child’s age.”
A report from the same center in October found similarly misleading marketing tactics among beverage marketers, who sugarcoat the lack of juice in their juice products.
Meanwhile, the American Heart Association and other leading medical groups announced in September recommendations on what young children should drink: breast milk, infant formula, water, and plain milk. Pediatricians and researchers say giving kids sweetened drinks not only is bad for their teeth and general health, but it trains them to prefer sugary drinks before they know any better, setting them up for a lifetime of potential problems.
“With breastfeeding rates in the United States increasing, and demand for infant formula decreasing as a result, it appears formula manufacturers have identified a marketing opportunity to extend their product line to drinks for toddlers,” says UCONN researcher Jennifer Harris, PhD, one of the study team members. “But they should not take advantage of parents’ natural concerns about their toddlers’ nutrition and development to sell them a product their children don’t need, and that could make it more difficult for their children to develop healthy eating habits.”
“Toddler milk supplements may actually be doing harm by fueling rapid, unnecessary weight gain in young children,” researchers concluded in a 2016 commentary in the journal Healthcare. “Healthy developmental growth does not mean gaining weight and getting fat,” said Michelle Lampl, lead author of the commentary and director of the Center for the Study of Human Health at Emory University. “It is primarily measured by whether a child is growing a stronger, longer skeleton.”
Why has nothing been done? “Liquid-based nutritional supplements fall into a regulatory loophole, because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not consider supplements to be a drug or a ‘conventional food,” Lampl and her colleagues noted.
“When a mother goes into a store and sees a toddler milk supplement on a shelf, she has no idea that it is falls into a less rigorous FDA category than those covering so-called conventional food and medicine,” Lampl says. “We have a product aimed at a vulnerable population — infants and young children — that does not have adequate oversight.”