Canadian study examines quality of children's foods

by Eric Schroeder
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OTTAWA — Food geared toward children not only appears to be of poor nutritional quality, but shockingly so, according to a new study conducted by Charlene Elliott of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa and funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

As part of her study, which appeared in the July issue of the U.K.-based journal Obesity Reviews, Ms. Elliott and researchers analyzed 367 products that were bought during three separate trips to a Loblaws Superstore in December 2005. The products were photographed, stored and subsequently coded, with nutritional information recorded for each product. (Since that time, a number of companies have taken steps to alter the way they market food and beverage products to children and in some cases have reformulated products to be more in line with acceptable nutrition standards.)

Of the 367 products analyzed, 326, or 89%, were classified as "of poor nutritional quality" because of high levels of sodium or an excessive portion of calories coming from fat or sugar.

In defining the criteria for "poor nutritional quality," researchers used the standards established by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which are:

• > 35% of total calories from fat, excluding nuts, seeds and peanut or other nut butters;

• > 230 mg of sodium per serving for chips, crackers, cheeses, baked good, french fries, other snacks;

• > 480 mg of sodium per serving for cereals, soups, pastas and meats;

• > 600 mg of sodium for pizza, sandwiches and main dishes; and

• > 770 mg of sodium for meals.

In regards to sugar, researchers used the recommendations of the American Heart Association, which state that any products that exceed the 20% sugar mark in a 200 calorie serving should be classified as "poor nutritional quality."

Ultimately, what the study found was that "fun foods," or foods targeted to children with merchandise tie-ins, strange shapes, colors and cartoon characters, are falling flat in delivering on health and wellness.

The study, which excluded "junk food," i.e., confectionery, soft drinks, cakes and potato chips, found that almost 23% of products were classified as poorly nutritious because of an excessive amount of calories coming from fat, 17% had high levels of sodium, and 69.5% were tabbed poorly nutritious because of a high percentage of calories coming from sugar.

Only a little more than 10% of the 367 products analyzed were considered low in sodium and did not contain an excessive amount of calories sourced from fat or sugar.

Breaking the study down further, 222 products were classified as dry goods, including cereal, crackers, granola bars, dressings, sauces and condiments. Of the 222 products, 82% were found to be of poor nutritional quality because of excessive sugar, while 10% were of poor nutritional quality due to a high proportion of calories from fat and 9% because of high sodium levels.

While sugar was less of an issue for refrigerated and frozen foods, 60% of the 63 products surveyed were deemed poor because of a high proportion of fat calories, with another 60% failing to meet the criteria for sodium and 23.8% having too much sugar.

The researchers said that dairy products fared well nutritionally in regards to sodium and fat, with none of the 53 products surveyed containing high levels of sodium and only 22.6% (all cheese) containing a higher proportion of calories from fat. But sugar was a problem for the category, as 77.4% had a significant portion of calories derived from sugar.

Mandatory nutrition labeling is required on most pre-packaged foods in Canada, and many of the products in the survey boasted nutrition claims on the front of the box. In fact, 63% of the products made one or more nutrition claim on the front of the box, ranging from the Smart Spot! seal to the claim "made with real fruit juice."

But of the 326 products that were classified as being of poor nutritional quality, 202, or 62%, had nutrition claims on the front of the package, the study showed. The researchers found that 21 of the 22 products that claimed to be low fat also contained more than 10 grams of sugar per serving, while 19 of the 24 products that claimed to be a source of calcium were equally a source of high sugar. FBN




Nutritional assessment of children’s foods

Sugar 69.5%

Total fat 22.7%

Sodium 17%

One or more of the above 89.3%

Low levels of sugar, sodium and fat 10.7%


Figures represent percentage out of 367 products that failed to meet predetermined nutrition standards.

Source: "Assessing ‘fun foods’: nutritional content and analysis of supermarket foods targeted at children."

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