Some food products for babies and toddlers encourage children to develop a taste for sugar and salt, a researcher says. ((Reuters))

More than half of baby and toddler foods at Canadian grocery stores have too many calories coming from sugar, according to a study by the University of Calgary.

The study focused on a new category of processed foods such as toddler cereal bars, cookies, fruit snacks and yogurts. It showed 53 per cent of these foods had more than 20 per cent of calories coming from sugar and some even had more than 80 per cent of calories from sugar.

Simple purées of fruits and vegetables for babies were not included.

"Particular irony resides in the fact that public policy initiatives are underway to put recommended limits on the consumption of added sugars for adults and also to encourage consumers to adjust their taste buds to lower sodium levels in packaged foods — all while some products aimed at babies and toddlers work to encourage children to develop a taste for sugar and salt," study author Charlene Elliott, a professor in the University of Calgary's communications and culture department, concluded in the Journal of Public Health.

People expect baby and toddler foods to be held to a higher standard, but the findings suggests that isn't necessarily the case, Elliott said Monday.

After examining sugar and sodium levels on 186 food products specifically marketed for babies and toddlers and sold at nine stores in Calgary, Elliott found:

  • 40 per cent of products listed sugar — or some variant like corn syrup, cane syrup, brown sugar, or dextrose — in the first four ingredients on the label.
  • 19 per cent listed sugar in some form as either the first or second ingredient.
  • Baby and toddler foods were not found to be nutritionally superior in terms of sodium or sugar to their adult counterparts.
  • Overall, sodium was not problematic, with 12 per cent of foods containing moderate to high levels of sodium.

The study showed 80 per cent of the calories in Gerber Graduates for Toddlers Mini Fruit (Apple) and President's Choice Toddlers' 100% Real Fruit Snack (Banana Mango) were from sugar. Heinz Blueberry Desert (Junior) contained the lowest amount, 58 per cent.

Snack training

What is particularly of concern for Elliott is that the toddler snacks start training children to want a treat at the end of meal, which even adults often have trouble resisting.

"The [Healthy Times Arrowroot] Premium Organic 1st Cookie for Toddlers seems to suggest that you should be giving your toddler a first cookie, which isn't necessarily the case, or isn't perhaps an ideal strategy," Elliott said.

Since there is no universally accepted standard on maximum levels of added sugars for very young children, it is difficult to assess sugar levels in baby and toddler foods, the study noted.

Dr. Liann Meloff of the Pediatric Weight Clinic in Calgary said the findings show the importance of reading nutrition labels to see what is in the food parents are giving their children.

Parent Samantha Furst of Calgary said food packages don't always indicate what offers the best nutrition.

"When I had my first son, I would buy the products because they look like they are geared to kids," said Furst, who has two boys.

Furst said her toddler points out the brightly packaged products at the store, but she passes them by as she searches for healthier choices.

Juices and beverages, and infant formulas and infant cereals designed to be mixed with breast milk or water, were excluded from the study to focus on foods aimed at babies and toddlers, rather than infants.

"The majority of our jarred foods contain no added sugar or salt, but for the minority that do, reducing sodium and sugar is a key priority for us," Catherine O'Brien, director of corporate affairs at Nestlé Canada in Toronto, said in a statement to CBC News.

Gerber said its Mini Fruits are made of just dried fruits. For other snacks, the company said it's working to remove corn syrup and reduce all sugars from the foods, which are meant to be occasional desserts.

The study was funded by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest Canada.