For the first year of life, the rules about what to feed your baby are spelled out pretty clearly for parents. It’s formula or breastmilk (groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that women try for the latter), plus complementary foods from about six months on. After your child turns 1, the AAP recommends introducing whole cow’s milk.
But a new and confusing alternate option has cropped up over the past decade: “toddler milks.” These milk-based products, sold by formula companies and billed as though they’re the next step for kiddos, tend to have added sugars, more sodium and less protein than plain whole milk.
But they’re being marketed to parents like crazy. According to new research published Tuesday, formula companies quadrupled their advertising of toddler milk products between 2006 and 2015. And parents seem to be buying it.
During that time, annual volume sales of these toddler milks jumped from 47 million to 121 million ounces — again, despite the fact that they are likely worse for young kids. Sales were highest in areas with a higher number of college-educated residents.
“Companies that make infant formula have moved their ad dollars from formula to toddler milks — and the payoff has been great for them as sales of toddler milks more than doubled over the 10-year period we analyzed,” study researchers Yoon Choi and Jennifer Harris — both with the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut — wrote in an email to HuffPost.
The study looked at marketing dollars spent by formula brands including Similac, Enfamil/Enfagrow, Baby’s Only Organics and more.
Despite the fact that baby formula has often been maligned in parenting circles and on social media, it’s an essential product for many, many families. Groups like the AAP might recommend that all moms breastfeed exclusively for six months and then continue — with foods — for at least a year, but most American moms don’t do that. Only about 57 percent of moms are still breastfeeding their babies at six months and roughly 35 percent are still breastfeeding at 12 months. Thus, many parents rely on baby formula to provide their children with important nutrition.
“Companies that make infant formula have moved their ad dollars from formula to toddler milks — and the payoff has been great for them.”
Toddler milks, on the other hand, consist primarily of powdered low-fat milk, corn syrup solids or other sweeteners, and vegetable oils, the researchers argue in their study, published Tuesday in the journal Public Health Nutrition.
“There is no reason for toddler milks to exist other than to increase companies’ profits,” Choi and Harris told HuffPost. “These are sweetened, milk-based drinks with added nutrients that are not scientifically proven to benefit young children’s development, and cost three-to-five times as much as plain milk.”
Furthermore, the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the nutritional composition of toddler milks in the same way that it regulates the nutritional makeup of baby formulas, the researchers say.
The World Health Organization has been critical of the marketing of toddler drinks, asking countries to limit direct marketing of breast milk substitutes — including toddler milks — directly to consumers. Domestically, the AAP does not have any specific policies that address its use.
Without those kinds of guidelines, it can be difficult for consumers to figure out whether their children might benefit from toddler milks — particularly given that prior research has found labels on these beverages can make misleading nutritional claims. Formula companies have defended their products, saying they provide children with key nutrients.
There might be some children who have a nutritional need for these types of follow-up formulas, Dr. George Fuchs, a member of the AAP Committee on Nutrition told HuffPost. But that is likely a small group, and that is a conversation parents should have with their children’s health care providers.
“The labeling can be very confusing, implying that they’re necessary beyond a year of age when they really aren’t,” Fuchs said.
“Parents trust the infant formula companies — for many of them that is
what nourished their babies in their first 12 months — and their marketing is very smart,” echoed Choi and Harris. “They send coupons and free samples, hire mom bloggers, and make it seem like a child is missing out if they don’t drink toddler milks.”
Remember this, parents: They’re not.