New study reveals high sugar and salt content in commercial foods marketed for young children in Southeast Asia

Study across 7 countries shows an alarming 72 per cent of snacks and finger foods marketed at children under 3 contain added sugars and sweeteners

14 December 2023
Rice porridge is served at an EU supported health outreach service in Savane Village Phongsaly Province, Lao PDR. This cooking demonstration shows parents how to make healthy one pot meals for their kids.

Vientiane, 14 December 2023 –  A new regional study released today revealed high sugar and salt content in commercially produced packaged foods marketed for children aged 6 months to 3 years in Southeast Asia, as well as widespread use of potentially misleading and deceptive labelling and lack of strict regulations around product composition and sale. 

The study, supported by UNICEF and partners of the Consortium for Improving Complementary Foods in Southeast Asia (COMMIT), assessed more than 1600 infant cereals, purées, pouches, snacks and ready-to-eat meals marketed at young children in Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam. It also studied consumer behaviours and existing regulations in the seven countries.  

The study found that nearly half of the products studied (44 per cent) included added sugars and sweeteners; among snacks and fingers foods, this rose to 72 per cent. When it came to salt content, more than one third of the products studied included more sodium than recommended.  

Furthermore, nearly 90 per cent of labels on the products studied included potentially misleading or deceptive claims about their composition.  

"In Lao PDR, numerous food products targeted at our youngest children are not only unhealthy but are also marketed with misleading labels," stated Pia Rebello Britto, UNICEF Representative to Lao PDR, emphasizing the regional concern. "Our children and their parents are entitled to healthier options and transparent information." 

For Lao PDR, the report identifies gaps in current diets, particularly in micronutrient content, and underscores the influence of commercially produced complementary foods marketing on consumer choices. It reveals shortcomings in national regulatory frameworks for commercially produced complementary foods, including gaps in regulating nutrient composition, labeling, and marketing. The report urges the development of comprehensive national standards and guidelines to ensure commercially produced complementary foods are nutritionally adequate and responsibly promoted, with a focus on improved regulation, prohibition of harmful ingredients, and support for continued breastfeeding. 

Commercially produced complementary foods are a common part of the diets of young children in Southeast Asia, with 79 per cent of mothers from urban centres reporting they provide these foods to their young children daily. Across Southeast Asia, sales of commercially produced complementary foods have risen by 45 per cent in the past five years. 

In terms of regulation, the study noted that none of the seven countries had national policies on the composition and labelling of commercially produced complementary foods which follow all international guidance. Several countries were found to have no legal measures to regulate the sugar or salt content of commercially produced complementary foods. Countries with maximum sugar or salt thresholds often only applied them to certain categories, such as cereals or snack foods, and the thresholds were higher than international standards. Sugar intake early in life can lead to cavities, weight gain, and poor eating habits, while high sodium intake can lead to high blood pressure, with impacts that can be lifelong. 

Extensive use of claims was also found, with claims about product composition or nutrient content appearing on nearly 90 per cent of the products assessed. Common claims appearing on products with high sugar, salt or fat content included “all natural”, “good source of vitamins”, and “no artificial ingredients.” Further, in Cambodia, Philippines and Lao PDR, the majority of products were only labelled in English or non-national languages, limiting the ability of parents to make informed choices to ensure nutritious diets for their children. 

UNICEF and COMMIT partners are calling for: 

  1. Improved government regulations for commercially produced complementary foods, including prohibiting the use of added sugars and sweeteners, limiting sugar and sodium content, and prohibiting misleading marketing and labelling   

  1. Strict government monitoring and enforcement of national regulations on commercially produced complementary foods  

  1. Support for parents to provide a diverse array of nutritious food to their youngest children and navigate deceptive marketing and labelling practices.  


Notes to Editors: 

  • Read and download the report here.  

  • Photos, b-roll and other multimedia assets are available here 

Media contacts

Simon Nazer
Chief of Communication
Tel: +856 2055519681
Tabongphet Phouthavong
Communication Specialist
Tel: +85621 487520;ext=7520
Tel: +856 20 96888890


COMMIT is a joint initiative by the Access to Nutrition Initiative; Alive & Thrive; Helen Keller International; JB Consultancy; School of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Leeds; UNICEF East Asia Pacific Regional Office; and World Food Programme Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau. 

It was established to support governments with regulating commercially prepared complementary foods and to protect consumers from inappropriate marketing practices.  


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