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
mother feeding child
UNICEF/UNI485289/Diosina

BANGKOK, 14 December 2023 A new 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.

“Far too many of the food products being marketed to the youngest girls and boys are unhealthy and labelled in ways that may deceive parents,” said Debora Comini, UNICEF Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific. “Children and their parents deserve better.”

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.

“Governments and food producers can, and must, play a stronger role in safeguarding the health of the youngest children,” underlined Ms. Comini. “Good nutrition in the first years of life helps children thrive, fuelling prosperous families, productive workforces and powerful economies. On the other hand, poor nutrition increases the risk of stunting, wasting, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight, obesity and disease, ultimately coming at great cost to children and their families, but also to healthcare systems and economies.”

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 
  2. Strict government monitoring and enforcement of national regulations on commercially produced complementary foods
  3. Support for parents to provide a diverse array of nutritious food to their youngest children and navigate deceptive marketing and labelling practices.

About COMMIT

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.

 

About UNICEF

UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.

For more information about UNICEF and its work for children in the Philippines, visit www.unicef.ph.

Follow UNICEF Philippines on FacebookInstagram, LinkedIn, TikTok and Twitter and YouTube.