It sounds completely ludicrous when I put it that way, doesn’t it? But it’s true: apparently you can help your picky little eater get all the nutrition he or she needs with paediatrician-recommended milkshakes.
With Canadian and U.S. breastfeeding rates reaching their highest levels on record, and government mandates imposing limits on formula manufacturers’ marketing capabilities (e.g. hospitals no longer providing routine formula samples to new moms), formula companies have begun to branch out to new markets. I had to laugh when I was pregnant, and noticed that Similac is now promoting a “formula” for pregnant and lactating women, Similac Mom. But what I definitely don’t find amusing in the slightest is the emerging trend towards formula products for toddlers and older children.
This is not a criticism of parents who choose to feed formula to their infants. Infants have a developmental need for liquid nutrition, whether that comes from the breast, a bottle of formula, or some combination of both. What gets me riled up is the way marketers prey on parents’ insecurities to promote a product that is not only completely unnecessary for the average child, but may even adversely affect the child’s future health status and nutrition habits (more on that later).
Take PediaSure Complete (from the manufacturers of Similac), for example. PediaSure was originally designed as a nutritional supplement for sick children, children with specific digestive/metabolic disorders, children with identified nutritional deficiencies, children with growth or weight gain problems, and children who have developmental problems that make it difficult or impossible to consume age-appropriate solid foods. But now, the manufacturer has created a mainstream product for otherwise healthy children aged one through 10 (i.e. children who have outgrown traditional baby formula) to “help fill the holes in your picky eater’s diet.”
The offshoot website, PickyEating.ca, outlines a plethora of potential feeding difficulties, for which the solution to all issues includes the recommendation to supplement with PediaSure Complete. One such feeding difficulty is “parental concern.”
“You may think your child is small relative to other children, but your doctor tells you your child is growing normally. Your child is active and playful, but when it comes to eating, you can’t help being concerned that he/she is not eating as well as he/she should. Like all parents, you want the best for your child and you understand how important a balanced diet is to growth and development. Perhaps you are more concerned than you need to be. Still, you want to be sure your child receives all the nutrition he or she needs to thrive.”
In other words, “Even if your child does not actually need a nutritional supplement, and your doctor assures you that your child is fine, you should probably err on the side of caution and buy this product — if anything, to alleviate your own concerns.”
Notwithstanding questionable marketing practices, let’s consider the ingredients in these so-called “nutritional supplements.” The PediaSure Complete website declines to provide an ingredients list; instead providing only a list of the various nutrients the product contains — all the good stuff; none of the bad. But I have examined the actual product in store. PediaSure’s second ingredient, after (nutritionally-insignificant) water, is sugar! Aside from water, the highest volume ingredient in a so-called “nutritious” drink for children is sugar. And after sugar? Maltodextrin. In other words, more sugar. These beverages also contain artificial flavourings and a variety of altered proteins and oils.
In case you have a really picky eater who won’t even consume a sugar-laden milkshake, PediaSure offers a variety of convenient junk food recipes to help you cram the product down your child’s gullet, with healthful additions like chocolate syrup, sugar, marshmallows, Bisquick and Dream Whip. Hey parents: now you can boost your child’s nutrition with chocolate creamsicles!
I don’t mean to rag on mainstream formula manufacturers exclusively, because even the venerable Dr. Sears, attachment parenting guru extraordinaire, has his own brand of sugary “big kid formula,” Cool Fuel.
“Cool Fuel contains all the nutrition your kids need to be healthy and to perform at their best in and out of the classroom. Unlike Pediasure that contains chemicals, food dyes, soybean oil and high amounts of sugar, Cool Fuel is all natural with a taste your kids will love. Whether your kids need more focus at school, more energy in the playground, more growth, or more taste because they are picky eaters, then Cool Fuel is for cool kids like them. And cool moms like you.”
With such nutritious ingredients as corn maltodextrin and dried cane syrup (um… sugar) listed second (after water) and fourth respectively, and with numerous refined and processed proteins, oils and emulsifiers, who wouldn’t want to feed this “all natural” product to their children? Especially with Dr. Sears’ implied promise of better grades, superior athleticism and optimal growth.
In addition to PediaSure and Cool Fuel, other “formula” products for older children include:
- Nestlé’s Kid Essentials (the children’s version of Boost), whose second through fourth ingredients are sugar, maltodextrin and fructose — and which also contains artificial flavour.
- Herbalife Kids shake mix, containing fructose, sugar and dextrin as its second through fourth ingredients.
In my opinion, these supplements amount to nothing more than lipstick on a pig. Sure, they may contain “26 essential nutrients for growth,” or be “a good source of (insert latest over-hyped micronutrient here),” but adding vitamins, minerals and macronutrients to a product absolutely does not negate the deleterious effects of sugars, artificial flavours and altered proteins and oils. Heck, even FrootLoops are fortified with essential nutrients, but nobody in their right mind would consider those healthy!
While these products contain many of the nutrients necessary to support children’s growth and development, there is very little clinical research proving that the synthetic vitamins and minerals used for fortification are as bioavailable as those occurring naturally in whole foods. Nutritional supplements are not the equivalent of a nutritious diet.
Aside from the problems identified above, my biggest concern is that the use of these products outside of clinically necessary circumstances does nothing to help children enjoy (or at the very least accept) healthy, nutrient-dense foods. Instead, it conditions them to prefer the sweetened, hyper-palatable foods that contribute to lifestyle diseases, such as obesity, heart disease and type II diabetes. Under the guise of helping to improve children’s diets, these products are — inadvertently or otherwise — exacerbating the very feeding problems they purport to resolve.
In reality, the only way that most children will come to accept nutritious foods as the mainstay of their diet is through repeated exposure to healthy foods and removal of undesirable junk foods. In the absence of more appealing (i.e. sugary, fatty, salty, processed) options, children will not starve themselves.
What do you think about nutritional supplement shakes for children? Am I being too condemnatory and cynical? Do they in fact have an appropriate place in the diets of picky eaters, or are they just another insidious means to get children hooked on sugary, hyper-palatable foods?