Parents with toddlers are being urged to ditch supermarket snacks and fruit juice drinks and go for fresh alternatives to give their children a healthy start to life with a review finding many pre-packaged options contain alarmingly high levels of sugar, salt and unhealthy fats.

A nutritional analysis undertaken by nutritionist and chef Zoe Bingley-Pullin for Australian Avocados looked at the contents of products in eight popular children’s snack categories and found most contain a range of hidden sugars and high levels of saturated fat along with a range of additives and preservatives. MSG was also shown to be used to flavour leading savoury biscuit snacks aimed at kids.

According to the review, some cheese and cracker snack packs contain up to or over 100 per cent of a three year olds’ recommended daily sodium intake. Sweet puffed rice bars were also shown to have up to a quarter of a toddler’s daily sugar allowance. Disturbingly, some children’s yoghurts can be higher in sugar than adult options.

Ms Bingley-Pullin said that while packaged snacks may seem convenient and even healthy based on face value, many parents are unwittingly purchasing foods with poor nutritional credentials for their families.

“Research shows that 70 per cent of food preferences are established at an early age so to ensure a healthy diet later in life, parents need to stop relying on processed snacks and whip up nutritious options with fresh produce instead, involving little ones in the process wherever possible,” she said.

“Use a rainbow of ingredients in each meal plus different textures and temperatures to make food interesting and fun. Apart from being a rich source of dietary fibre and low in sodium and sugar, avocados are colourful, delicious and texturally appealing so they are a perfect food to experiment with,” she said.

Bingley-Pullin said that along with parents, childcare centres play an important role in guiding the food preferences of toddlers and must help to improve their eating.

She pointed to the ‘Eating My Colourful Vegies and Fruit’ resource kit, developed in 2010 by the growers of Australian avocados in conjunction with nutrition and education experts Shelley Woodrow and Nadine McCrea, as an initiative using development-based food exploration activities to help establish good eating habits for life.

The program has already helped 60,000 preschoolers embrace a variety of plant-based foods and this October, it will launch across another 600 child care centres and be piloted in 10 primary schools nationwide.

Mel Ellis, Director at Midson Road Child Care Centre in Epping, NSW, said the program proved a major success last year with toddlers delighting in trying a diverse range of healthy new foods.

“The ‘Eating My Colourful Vegies and Fruit’ kit engages children and helps them develop varied food preferences in fun and positive ways through activities that get them using all their senses when discovering new flavours and textures,” Ms Ellis said.

“The program also assists with building social, science and food literacy skills, so we will definitely be using it again this year with our toddlers,” she said.

The Australian avocado growers are committed to playing a part in improving the wellbeing of future generations and see the resource as a valuable way to help achieve this.

Along with the resource kit, each participating centre receives a tray of fresh Australian avocados to help support the implementation of a range of sensory activities.

Key Findings from Toddler Snacks Nutritional Analysis*

Children’s Yoghurts

These yoghurts can be a good source of calcium and in some cases have added Vitamin D and Omega 3s which are beneficial for children. But surprisingly, some of these products were generally higher in sugars (added and from fruit) than some adult options. Be sure to check the nutrition information panel when shopping.

Rolled Fruit Snacks

While the fruit content in these products varies greatly from as little as 1% fruit, it is usually processed and there are high levels of a range of sugars, additives and preservatives. They are not a substitute for fresh fruit.

Fruit-filled Baked Cereal Bars 

Can contain a range of unnatural additives and are very high in energy, carbohydrates, sodium and sugar, both natural and added so read the ingredients lists – better to eat small tubs of real fruit packed in natural juice.

Puffed Rice Sweet Treats 

On average these products are high in energy and contain high GI carbohydrates, high in fat (some products have half the fat from unhealthy saturated fat!), a range of sugars and sodium.

Cheese and Crackers Snack Packs 

On average these contain processed cheese with a high saturated fat and sodium content. The biscuits are loaded with sugar, sodium and processed carbohydrates. A piece of low fat cheddar is a good alternative as a calcium-rich snack.

Sweet Nut Spreads 

Hazelnut spreads tend to be high in added sugars and fats (some natural, derived from healthy hazelnuts) including a high percentage of saturated fat (around 30 per cent on average). 100 per cent fruit spreads look to be a better option containing less energy and saturated fat and natural rather than processed sugars. 100 per cent nut butters and pastes with no added fats, sugars or sodium are also a good alternative.

Savoury biscuit snacks 

These products tend to have a very high salt content and are up to one third saturated fat. Some popular options also contain MSG (monosodium glutamate).

Fruit Juice Drinks 

These drinks are high in sugars (natural and added) and are a dentist’s worst nightmare as they can contribute to dental erosion. Water or plain milk are better options for toddlers. Flavoured milks provide a good source of calcium but are still high in sugars (natural and added).

*Analysis looked at three random product options within each category.

  • Yep, sure pats to read labels to find out exactly what’s in them before purchasing

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  • That hidden sugar is a fiend! Especially hiding it what we think are healthy snacks for out kids.

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  • A really interesting article! Thank for this read!

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  • I get so confused reading the labels

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  • Children’s fruit snacks are hon in sugar and gluten so bad for them love this article

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  • Along with our modern day ‘diet’ we should be more aware of what we are actually putting in the trolley and into our bodies, and our childrens bodies. Summer is perfect for fruit but again natural sugars are there, but always make sure water is available.

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  • I like to make my own bars and biscuits.

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  • Fabulous read, thanks for sharing all this info, will think twice what I put in the trolley.

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  • great read. recommended

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  • A little bit of thought and planning means that you don’t need to use the “time poor” excuse for choosing all the packaged snack options. It really isn’t all that hard creating healthy snacks.

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  • Like to make my own snacks.

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  • A great reminder! I find that avoiding the processed snacks altogether is easier when I plan snacks as well as meals before finalising my shopping list. I agree that sugar is a problem, mainly the hidden sugar in processed snacks. The great recipes that our MoMs have shared make tasty and nutritious mini frittatas, banana and oat loaf, healthy muffins etc. and are easy to make and freeze for convenience. Luckily, crunch and sip time at school provides an opportunity for crunchy fruit or veg as a snack and water as a drink. Because of the amount of sugar in juice I prefer to have lots of fresh fruit on the shopping list instead. I like Greek style yoghurt but my family doesn’t agree so I do compromise there and get one that is sweetened with fruit juice. Having healthy options ready solves a lot of problems at snack time. I love nuts and of course they’re banned at school, but I always have them available at home. Great with a small serve of dried fruit too. If we’re out and only processed snacks are offered we don’t make a big deal about it, and know that it is only a “sometimes” food and not going to wreck our “every day” health plan.

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  • Thanks for the article, I think most of us already know what’s healthy and what isn’t. We all have a choice and I’m not making the right ones all of the time but refuse to feel guilty about it.

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  • Good read thanks for the information

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  • Thankyou for getting this out there! It was only when I started weight watchers and started counting the points of my sons snacks that I realized how bad they actually were! More parents need to read this!

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