What to Look for on Baby & Toddler Food Ingredient Lists
Feeding babies and toddlers can be complicated. As a parent, your job is to decide WHAT, WHEN and WHERE your child is served food. Simply put, you determine where your child eats (hint – at the table most of the time, without distractions) when your child eats (scheduled meals and snacks about 2-3 hours apart is best), and what your child eats.
Most parents find the “what” part can be tricky. The overwhelm often starts at the grocery store, full of options, bright lights and lots of people. Throw a cranky toddler into the mix and it can make attempting to read the labels to find what’s best to serve them, a daunting task.
The truth is; not all packaged baby and toddler foods are created equal. So, to help you feel more confident with your baby food purchases, here are some tips on what to look for on the ingredient list to best feed your little ones.
Keep It Short: Short and simple is best when it comes to ingredient lists. Although there’s no visible ingredient list, whole foods are as simple as you can get. But realistically, whole foods are not going to be the only foods consumed. So, when looking at the label, look for a short list of ingredients that you can recognize.
Keep It Real: Try to avoid artificial colours, flavours and sweeteners, and aim to limit the number of preservatives. There are processed foods and there are ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods will have five or more of the super cheap ingredients, like white flour, corn syrup, oil, salt and preservatives. These ingredients reduce the cost and shelf life of these foods. Try to avoid ultra-processed foods if you can and choose minimally processed ones instead. Look for the most abundant ingredients (the ones at the top of the list) to be real, whole foods. For example, if you are purchasing a fruit and veggie squeeze pouch, make sure the first ingredient is either a fruit or veggie!
Hold the Extra Sugar: This is a big one, especially when it comes to food for babies and toddlers. Kids have a natural affinity to sweet food. But for kids under the age of two, added sugars aren’t recommended. For toddlers and kids over the age of two, the recommendation is no more than 6 teaspoons (or approximately 25 grams) of added sugar per day. If you look at the ingredient list, an added sugar will be written as sugar in the form of glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, and so on. Look for words ending in -ose and you’ve found sugar! You may be surprised to hear that added sugars also include maple syrup and honey. Although these sugars are more naturally derived, sugar is sugar! Foods flavoured with naturally occurring sugars will be written as apple puree or the whole fruit. You get the natural sweetness from the fruit, plus the bonus antioxidants, vitamins, and fibre.
Foods with too much sugar are often calorically dense and lacking in other nutrients, so the risk with little eaters would be nutrient displacement. Kids have small tummies so let’s make sure we fill them with nutritious food. Look for foods with natural sweetness from fruit.
Choose Products with Whole Grains: Aim for whole grains when choosing starchy foods when you can. For kids, granola bars, crackers and mini muffins are often mainstays. The majority of kids love starchy food! So always look for whole grains when possible. Oats, whole wheat flour and quinoa would be great ingredients to search for. Whole grains provide essential vitamins and are loaded with fibre to help keep kids feeling satisfied.
Compare Nutrition Facts Panels (if you have time!) First and foremost, try looking at the ingredients list to compare different products. If you don’t have much time, start and end there. If you’re a little more thorough and have time on your hands, check out the nutrition facts panel. The nutrition facts panel is meant to help you determine the nutrient amounts within a product. The new Canadian Food Regulations indicate that less than 5% is a little and more than 15% is a lot, which should help when looking at backs of packs.
When comparing two different products with different ingredients and different serving sizes, how do you know which one to choose?
- First step – make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. There’s no point comparing a package of baby puffs with a fruit and veggie pack because they’re totally different foods. Compare one brand of puff with another and compare one brand of fruit/veggie pouch with another fruit and veggie pouch.
- Next, check out the serving size. Make sure you’re comparing nutrients based on the same portion size. If one product is basing the nutrient information on a 30g serving, but the other product has a 50g serving, you’ve got to equalize them before comparing something like protein amounts.
- And finally, know what you’re looking for. In a granola bar, let’s say, you’d be looking for higher levels of fibre and protein and lower sugar content. In a yogurt container you would, again, want higher protein and lower sugar. In a fruit and veggie pouch you’d want to look for lower sugar content and bonus if there’s protein or fibre. In a puffed toddler snack, you’d want higher fibre, lower sodium and protein would be a bonus.