High Sugar, Salt Content in Infant Foods Across Seven ASEAN Countries, UNICEF Report Reveals

UNICEF Report Reveals High Sugar, Salt Content in Infant Foods Across Seven ASEAN Countries
Caregiver feeding infant (Photo: UNICEF)

Children across Southeast Asia are exposed to excessive amounts of sugar and salt contained in commercially produced food, a new study revealed.

The research assessed more than 1,600 infant cereals, purées, pouches, snacks, and ready-to-eat meals marketed to young children across seven ASEAN countries, excluding Myanmar, Brunei, and Singapore, revealing elevated levels of sugar and salt in commercially produced food designed for children aged 6 months to 3 years. The results shed light on nutritional concerns in widely marketed children’s food within the region, urging a closer look at the formulation and regulation of these products.

Conducted by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), in partnership with the Consortium for Improving Complementary Foods in Southeast Asia (COMMIT), the report also found that 44 percent of commercially produced complementary foods (CPCF) across the region contained added sugar or sweetener, including 72 percent of CPCF snacks and finger foods and 37 percent of instant cereals/porridges.

In Laos, there is a deficiency in the regulation and oversight of the issue, according to the document. As per national guidelines, CPCF labels have to include a message on the dangers of added sugar and sweeteners for young children. However, regulations do not set a limit for their addition to the products.

The same issue also applies to sodium contents. Currently, Laos does not regulate the amount of sodium content in any CPCF products.

In Southeast Asia, commercially produced food has become a prevalent component in the diets of young children, with 79 percent of mothers residing in urban centers reporting incorporating these foods into their children’s daily meals. Over the last five years, the sales of CPCF across the region have witnessed a substantial increase, soaring by 45 percent.

“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,” said Debora Comini, UNICEF Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific, in a press release.

While the lack of regulation over the amount of added sugar and sodium in CPCF remains a serious issue, equally troubling is the utilization of marketing tactics to make health and nutritional claims about CPCF.

According to UNICEF, nearly 90 percent of the products examined featured claims related to product composition or nutrient content. Products with high sugar, salt, or fat content often boasted labels such as “all natural,” “good source of vitamins,” and “no artificial ingredients.”

In Laos, existing regulations permit nutrient content claims, nutrient comparative claims, and nutrient function claims, provided they meet specific criteria. However, the prevalence of misleading claims on CPCF raises questions about the effectiveness of these regulations in ensuring accurate and transparent information for consumers.

Furthermore, in Laos, Cambodia, and the Philippines, the majority of products were only labeled in English or non-national languages, limiting the ability of parents to make informed choices to ensure nutritious diets for their children.

The results underscore a concerning reality. A significant portion of commercially produced food in Southeast Asia is not nutritionally suitable for young children. Also, the presence of potentially misleading claims adds to the complexity, potentially misleading caregivers in their choices.