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Blogging moms and nutritionists are criticizing a new formula for toddlers that comes in chocolate and vanilla flavors, saying it gives kids an early start toward obesity.
"Is it really a good idea to get our kids hooked on all things chocolate at the same time they're learning to walk?" one blogger posted on Momlogic.com.
"What's next, genetically modifying moms to produce chocolate breast milk?" wrote another.
Introduced by Glenview, Ill.-based Mead Johnson Nutrition Co. in February as a beverage for toddlers who are transitioning from infant formula or breast milk, Enfagrow Premium's toddler chocolate and vanilla formulas are milk-based but contain 19 grams of sugar per 7-ounce serving. The company said the product is no sweeter than chocolate milk or orange juice that toddlers drink and contains added nutrients that milk lacks, such as Omega-3 DHA and prebiotics.
"The toddler years can be particularly challenging since food preferences may be erratic and unpredictable," said Mead Johnson spokesman Chris Perille. "Products such as Enfagrow Premium can play a role in helping children achieve a more balanced, healthy daily diet."
Perille said the idea is to get a toddler to consume milk, even flavored milk, because it will lead to a healthier lifestyle.
Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, disagreed.
Nestle, who purchased a 29-ounce package of Enfagrow for $18.99 (22 servings) to study the product, said it will lead children who drink it to crave sugary beverages.
"You want kids to be interested in eating a very, very wide range of foods because variety helps create nutritional balance," she said. "You don't want them to think that every food needs to be sweet or salty."
Enfagrow is in what the food industry calls the "follow-on formula" category, which extends the concept of baby formula into toddlerhood. Abbott Nutrition, a unit of North Chicago-based Abbott Laboratories, produces a competing unflavored product called Similac Go & Grow.
Mead Johnson launched 30 products in 2009 after a several-year dry spell, Sekera said, and has a strategy that aims to extend the time consumers spend using their products beyond early infancy.
Stacy DeBroff, founder and CEO of MomCentral.com, a Web site geared toward busy moms, said at first glance chocolate-flavored formula might sound like a bad idea, but in some cases, it might be a "second best" option for parents with picky toddlers.
"If something stands between your children and drinking milk, then this becomes a better choice than juice or juice-based products, even, theoretically, water," she said.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, normal toddlers experience a sharp drop in appetite after they turn 1 due to slowed growth. A typical 1-year-old needs just 1,000 calories a day, according to the academy, about half that of the average adult. The academy recommended providing several nutrition-rich options and allowing toddlers to choose what they want to eat from those options. For toddlers who refuse to eat any of it, the academy recommended wrapping up the food for later.
Feeding a toddler sweetened foods at that age, the pediatric organization said, will fuel the child's interest in eating more sweets and diminish their desire for nutritious foods. Dietary supplements are rarely needed for toddlers who eat a varied diet.
"They just want to eat bread and crackers," said Jill Houk, co-founder of Center Chef Food Studios in Chicago and a participant in the Healthy Schools Campaign. "They want to eat fruit or anything sweet. In the short term, it may seem like, 'I just want to get nutrition in this child.' But in reality, you're creating a very bad situation."
That doesn't mean parents should ban sweetened food in their children's diet, said pediatrician Rebecca Unger at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where she specializes in nutrition and obesity.
"For a healthy child who doesn't have medical problems affecting growth and behavior and development, I don't think it's necessary," she said. "Could there be reasons for a child who is a really picky eater who is having other issues to drink it? Maybe."