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The push for tighter regulation of toddler milks and other commercial foods promoted for infants and young children

Introduction by Croakey: In December, a meeting of Australian and New Zealand Ministers with responsibility for food-related matters asked officials to progress a consultation paper “as a matter of priority” on options to improve commercial foods for infants and children in both countries.

The Ministers had considered an issues paper showing that these foods are poorly aligned with some aspects of the Australian and New Zealand Infant and Toddler Feeding Guidelines, and noting that early childhood is a critical time where poor dietary patterns can have life-long impacts on health and wellbeing.

The paper says these commercial foods are often high in sugar and sodium, while labelling does not support carers to make informed choices for infants and young children due to product naming not always accurately reflecting ingredients.

“Commercial foods aimed at infants and young children are frequently used by Australian and New Zealand parents, with many parents believing them to be a healthy choice. It is also widely believed that the content of commercial foods for infants and young children is tightly regulated by Government,” says the paper.

“However, there are limited regulations for the composition and nutritional quality of commercial food for infants and young children.”

Related concerns were aired in a recent investigation by ABC TV’s Dr Norman Swan that, as our ICYMI column recorded recently, received public health accolades.

Below, some of the experts who contributed to the ABC TV report advocate for restriction of marketing of all formula products for infants and toddlers from birth through to age three years. Their article was first published by The Conversation under the headline, ‘Why is toddler milk so popular? Follow the money’.


Jennifer McCann, Karleen Gribble, Naomi Hull and Anthea Rhodes write:

Toddler milk is popular and becoming more so.

Just over a third of Australian toddlers drink it. Parents spend hundreds of millions of dollars on it globally. Around the world, toddler milk makes up nearly half of total formula milk sales, with a 200 percent growth since 2005. Growth is expected to continue.

We’re concerned about the growing popularity of toddler milk – about its nutritional content, cost, how it’s marketed, and about the impact on the health and feeding of young children. Some of us voiced our concerns on the ABC’s 7.30 program recently.

But what’s in toddler milk? How does it compare to cow’s milk? How did it become so popular?

Toddler milk is marketed as appropriate for children aged one to three years. This ultra-processed food contains:

  • skim milk powder (cow, soy or goat)
  • vegetable oil
  • sugars (including added sugars)
  • emulsifiers (to help bind the ingredients and improve the texture)
  • added vitamins and minerals.

Toddler milk is usually lower in calcium and protein, and higher in sugar and calories than regular cow’s milk. Depending on the brand, a serve of toddler milk can contain as much sugar as a soft drink.

Even though toddler milks have added vitamins and minerals, these are found in and better absorbed from regular foods and breastmilk. Toddlers do not need the level of nutrients found in these products if they are eating a varied diet.

Global health authorities, including the World Health Organization (WHO), and Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council, do not recommend toddler milk for healthy toddlers.

Some children with specific metabolic or dietary medical problems might need tailored alternatives to cow’s milk. However, these products generally are not toddler milks and would be a specific product prescribed by a health-care provider.

Toddler milk is also up to four to five times more expensive than regular cow’s milk. “Premium” toddler milk (the same product, with higher levels of vitamins and minerals) is more expensive.

With the cost-of-living crisis, this means families might choose to go without other essentials to afford toddler milk.

How toddler milk was invented

Toddler milk was created so infant formula companies could get around rules preventing them from advertising their infant formula.

When manufacturers claim benefits of their toddler milk, many parents assume these claimed benefits apply to infant formula (known as cross-promotion). In other words, marketing toddler milks also boosts interest in their infant formula.

Manufacturers also create brand loyalty and recognition by making the labels of their toddler milk look similar to their infant formula. For parents who used infant formula, toddler milk is positioned as the next stage in feeding.

How toddler milk became so popular

Toddler milk is heavily marketed. Parents are told toddler milk is healthy and provides extra nutrition. Marketing tells parents it will benefit their child’s growth and development, their brain function and their immune system.

Toddler milk is also presented as a solution to fussy eating, which is common in toddlers.

However, regularly drinking toddler milk could increase the risk of fussiness as it reduces opportunities for toddlers to try new foods. It’s also sweet, needs no chewing, and essentially displaces energy and nutrients that whole foods provide.

Growing concern

The WHO, along with public health academics, has been raising concerns about the marketing of toddler milk for years.

In Australia, moves to curb how toddler milk is promoted have gone nowhere. Toddler milk is in a category of foods that are allowed to be fortified (to have vitamins and minerals added), with no marketing restrictions. The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission also has concerns about the rise of toddler milk marketing. Despite this, there is no change in how it’s regulated.

This is in contrast to voluntary marketing restrictions in Australia for infant formula.

What needs to happen?

There is enough evidence to show the marketing of commercial milk formula, including toddler milk, influences parents and undermines child health.

So governments need to act to protect parents from this marketing, and to put child health over profits.

Public health authorities and advocates, including us, are calling for the restriction of marketing (not selling) of all formula products for infants and toddlers from birth through to age three years.

Ideally, this would be mandatory, government-enforced marketing restrictions as opposed to industry self-regulation in place currently for infant formulas.

We musn’t blame parents

Toddlers are eating more processed foods (including toddler milk) than ever because time-poor parents are seeking a convenient option to ensure their child is getting adequate nutrition.

Formula manufacturers have used this information, and created a demand for an unnecessary product.

Parents want to do the best for their toddlers, but they need to know the marketing behind toddler milks is misleading.

Toddler milk is an unnecessary, unhealthy, expensive product. Toddlers just need whole foods and breastmilk, and/or cow’s milk or a non-dairy, milk alternative.

If parents are worried about their child’s eating, they should see a healthcare professional.

Author details and disclosure statements

Jennifer McCann is a researcher with the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), a co-chair of the Infant and Toddler Foods Alliance, and a member of the Public Health Association of Australia.

Adjunct Associate Professor Karleen Gribble is a member of the Public Health Association of Australia, the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative, the Australian Breastfeeding Association, the Infant and Toddler Food Research Alliance and the Infant and Young Child Feeding in Emergencies Core Group.

Naomi Hull is a member of, and volunteers for, the Australian Breastfeeding Association and is a member of the Public Health Association of Australia. She is also an executive on the Infant and Toddler Food Research Alliance. Naomi is the National Coordinator for the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative Australia.

Dr Anthea Rhodes, a paediatrician from Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne and a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, co-authored this article.


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