Toddler Milk: Another Attempt to Influence the Vulnerable

Walk down the baby food aisle in your supermarket, and you'll surely run into the “Toddler Milk” display. Every parent or grandparent wants the best for their child, and a product specially geared to a toddler's needs seems enticing. Don’t be fooled.
Image by 192635 from Pixabay

“Toddler milk is an ultra-processed beverage made up of large parts powdered milk, added sugar and vegetable oil… [and] contains less protein and more sodium than cow’s milk.”

-UNC School of Global Public Health

Marketed for babies 6 to 36 months of age, toddler milk is specially formulated to appeal to the young consumer, assuage the guilt of mothers who might otherwise be nursing, and invite buy-in from the busy parent who wants the best for their child. In 2013, the World Health Organization considered the product both “unnecessary” and “unsuitable” as a breast milk replacement; this past month, the American Academy of Pediatrics called it “potentially harmful.”

That has not stopped the rampant and rapid uptake in consumption. Globally, toddler milk accounts for 48% of breast milk substitutes.  This is not surprising, given the product’s intense and arguably deceptive or misleading marketing practices, including claims toddler milk, is the “necessary next step after baby formula” and that it improves brain and immune function.

“Toddler milk as a whole is “just junk,” It’s unnecessary and not needed.” 

-Jennifer Pomeranz, Associate professor of public health policy, NYU

Toddler milk is, in reality, a drink mix containing powdered milk, sugar, and a bit of vegetable oil. - Some contain salt and have less protein than cows milk; some have too much protein. [1] This is is unsurprising given that Toddler’s milk is unregulated and not standardized. The WHO notes they are also deficient in zinc, iron, vitamin B, and essential fatty acids. They are also costlier, diverting family food budgets from other more healthful and nutritional sources. Even so, as Professor Pomeranz points out, 60% of parents mistakenly believe the product contains essential nutrients unavailable elsewhere.

“Our review found that parents are buying toddler milk because they think it holds nutritional benefits for their children…. This belief is not surprising given the prevalence of marketing claims on toddler milk products about the supposed benefits. Unfortunately, these claims are generally not backed up by science.”

That has not stopped consumption.  

Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a perhaps overdue report documenting Toddler Milk’s problems, including lack of regulation, standardization, oversight, and overly aggressive marketing practices. By comparison, they recommend infant formula, which is heavily regulated.

As to what children should drink:

Pediatricians say babies should drink breast milk or infant formula until they're 12 months old. After that, cow's milk or breast milk is recommended, along with a varied, balanced diet of solid foods.”

While numerous class-action lawsuits alleging false marketing have been instituted against “non-toxic” baby medicines, “killer” chips,  and other seductive-self-harms, to my knowledge, no such action has been brought against the manufacturers of Toddler Milk. While these class actions keep plaintiff lawyers employed, they also provide a valuable public service – they keep manufacturers honest and protect vulnerable consumers. To be sure, this should be the job of the Consumer Safety and Products Commission, if not the Department of Health and Human Services. Alas, looking at toddler milk marketing practices, it seems government is too busy these days.

[1] Toddlers require smaller amounts of protein than adults and excess protein may stress their kidneys and result in dehydration. 

Sources: Toddler milk: a scoping review of research on consumption, perceptions, and marketing practices Nutrition Reviews DOI: 10.1093/nutrit/nuad057

US toddler milk sales and associations with marketing practices Public Health Nutrition DOI: 10.1017/S1368980019003756

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