Eggs, cucumber, orange and apple. Take that, PediaSure!

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,, 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?


  1. Ah, don’t you love foods that need to be fortified 16 ways in order to “be healthy” for us? Fortified sugar is my favorite! Thank goodness someone thought to fortify the Fruit Loops (they’re made with real fruit, right?). No, you’re not being condemnatory or cynical. Hopefully by the time our children are older, this might be common sense and people won’t be scratching their heads in the milkshake aisle wondering which flavor offers the most bang for the buck.

    A friend of ours was told by their pediatrician that their son needed more fat because he is not gaining weight. She went on to tell them that ice cream and chocolate milk are fine ways to make the fat more palatable. I am much too polite to scream at this suggestion, but even now (after my polite musings to the contrary) I cringe when we’re out and about together and he eats a large ice cream cone or cookies and they make some positive comment about fattening him up.

    It makes me crazy when products like these are pushed on parents as healthy alternatives to the real foods. How about a milkshake with an organic Pop Tart ,er, Toaster Pastry, for breakfast–after all, organic is good, right? “Deliciously organic and naturally flavored with real organic sun-ripened strawberry and whole grain content” and, just to give us a warm, cozy feeling that we’re doing right by our kids, it’s “Made with love…”

    Sorry, I am getting distracted reading about toaster pastries:
    A commenter wrote:
    “After seeing what “natural flavors” are derived from on “20-20 i stopped buying this product and everything else that has “natural flavors” in might want to specify what your natural flavors are if theyre ok and not some secretion from a beavers anal glands or something .”

    The customer service rep replied: “Hi there – thanks for getting in touch and asking us this question. We appreciate your interest in our product as a health conscious consumer. Rest assured, as an organic food manufacturer we never use MSG, artificial flavors, colors or preservatives in any of our organically certified foods. The natural flavors we use are all fruit, spice or plant based.”

    What? No secretions from beavers? I am glad we the public are getting informed about food via “educational” television programming. If it’s the “natural flavors” that are ruffling feathers–well, maybe the “heath conscious consumers” need to stop worrying about the fine details and focus on the big picture–it’s the sugar that will knock us down dead, not the beaver secretions.

    What f

    • I can’t believe any doctor would recommend ice cream and cookies as a way to increase fat intake! What ever happened to butter, oils, avocado, coconut and nuts? You know… “real” foods.

      I, too, have a real problem with organic junk food that purports to be healthy, and I agree that ultimately, it’s the sugar that is doing us in. And unfortunately, even organic evaporated cane syrup juice is still sugar. 😉

  2. It’s just a way to dress up a lot of cheap ingredients in order to increase profit margins, isn’t is? Normal healthy kids just need to be offerred a variety of healthy food. In our modern obesigenic society, its uncommon to be calorie deficient. Maybe micronutrient deficient but not calories. And sugary drinks are just calories.

    • I’ve read some articles suggesting that a large number of North Americans are, in effect, starving themselves into obesity by eating calorie-rich but nutritionally-deficient foods. Because the body doesn’t get what it needs, it continues to crave more calories, thus leading to obesity; but at the same time, people are finding themselves deficient in proteins, essential fats, fat-soluble vitamins, magnesium and more. Interesting stuff…

      • When obese patients come to the hospital, the nutritionists generally consider them to be nutrient-deficient.

        Foods that are highly processed are full of calories and fat, but devoid of micro-nutrients and you generally have to eat a lot of those foods to consume enough calories to become obese.

        • The problem is, the general population has not been educated on how to properly read food labels — on what to look for in the ingredients; on the fact that not all fat and sodium is bad and that sugar can wear many disguises; on the fact that being “a good source of x” doesn’t mean a product is nutritious; on the potential health consequences of various additives and preservatives; that just because something is free of trans-fats doesn’t mean it is free of all other bad stuff.

          The “Nutrition Data” panels have helped to increase transparency, but I think they have also led people to put too much emphasis on individual components of a food instead of looking at the big picture (“Hey, this freezer dinner is high in fibre and low in sodium — it must be good for me!”).

          I truly believe that if people really understood, and carefully scrutinized, their food labels, they would not eat half the crap they do.

          • I think what you are saying is true. I think it’s also true that the way we have organized our society is so obesigenic these days that the default position for most people is weight gain. From sedentary jobs to efficient roadways to the unaffordable price of housing in city centers (necessitating suburbs and more driving) to processed and high caloric food…now in order to be a healthy weight one must make choices in that direction multiple times a day, everyday.

  3. Great post. I came upon your blog via The Paleo Baby. I have to supplement with formula for my infant daughter, and have yet to find a whole food (partially even) non-processed, non-sugar brand. Even Earths Best lists corn syrup solids as one of the major ingredients. I’d use an organic brand (right now using Gerber brand) but none of the organic brands have a “gentle” version; my daughter has a mild case of reflux so I need a more easily digestive formula.

    Can anyone recommend anything?

    • I suspect that the sugars in formula, although not ideal, are necessary, both to mimic the sweetness of the mother’s milk and to add calories and carbohydrates. Mother’s milk would of course have lactose, but cow lactose is problematic from a digestive standpoint, so I suspect the corn syrup is there just because it’s easy for most babies to assimilate. At least that’s my theory, because like you, I’ve yet to see a brand of formula that doesn’t contain corn syrup, dextrose, etc.

      As far as the processing goes, that is also necessary because human babies lack the enzymes to properly break down cow’s milk; thus, the milk has to be “partially digested” via processing in order for the baby to be able to utilize all the nutrients (and not be in extreme digestive pain).

      I know that some people use the Weston A Price homemade formula recipe (which if I recall correctly, is sweetened with rice syrup), but I’m not sure that it has been medically approved and guaranteed to contain all of the necessary nutrients for a growing baby. It might be worth looking into further, though.

      • Human milk is the sweetest milk on the planet. It is much, much sweeter than cow’s milk (taste your own milk sometime. It is super-sweet), so formula must contain sugars to to mimic it. It is my understanding that certain sugars are easier to break down than others, so it is not just a matter of putting cane sugar into formula. Babies can’t break down the sugars in that form. The same goes for the oils in formula. Since most formula is sold in powered form (which is really the only way to practically sell formula given how much babies need every day) dried oils are really the way to go about it. The macro ingredients of breast milk are basically water, sugar and fat and that is what you are getting with formula as well. While formula lacks many good things in breast milk, the bottom line is that it does supply the basic nutrients babies need to grow and thrive, and therefore, you will never find a non-sugar formula because sugars are essentila

        I also supplement (mostly with human milk actually from friends), but have used formula as well. I used Earth’s Best, but I believe that Enfamil has a “Gentle Ease” formula that is easier on the stomach. Just look for it with added DHA and ARA, which are essential fatty acid chains. Also know that formula doesn’t necessarily make reflux or gas worse. My daughter has been on 100 breast milk for several months and still has gas and slight reflux.

  4. This is really sad, but unfortunately, not that surprising. Food manufacturers have such huge lobbies and are constantly looking for ways to expand their markets, which unfortunately, doesn’t benefit the health of the general public. I’m pregnant, and in the guideline for healthy eating during pregnancy that I got during my doctor, 1/5 of the recommended meals/snacks were ice cream or Wendy’s Frosties. They actually specifically listed Wendy’s Frosties! I was shocked.

  5. This comment is late in coming, but I am new to this blog. I had to supplement with my second child because of a low milk supply which I think was due to my traumatic emergency c-section. Anyway, I did quite a bit of research because I knew my friends who gave me milk could only help out for so long. There are some great homemade formula recipes out there. Sally Fallon is a nutritionist who wrote the book Nourishing Traditions and she has a semi paleo mindset, but she does encourage eating fermented grains. You can find variations of homemade recipes on her website. Also, there is a formula called “For Babies Only” It is recommended as a toddler formula, but they say on their website that infants can drink it, they just believe women should breastfeed as long as possible. I ended up supplementing with this as well as goat’s milk. I hope this helps other women who come across the post.

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