UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The descriptions on the fronts of infant and toddler food packages may not accurately reflect the actual ingredient amounts, according to new research. The team found that vegetables in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “dark green” category were very likely to appear in the product name, but their average order in the ingredient list was close to fourth. In contrast, juice and juice concentrates that came earlier on the ingredient list were less likely to appear in product names.
“Early experiences with food can mold children’s preferences and contribute to building healthful, or unhealthful, eating habits that last a lifetime,” said author Alyssa Bakke, staff sensory scientist, Penn State. “Our previous work found combining vegetables with fruits reduced the amount of vegetable flavor adults perceived, as the fruit flavors were more pronounced. Other research has also indicated that parents predominantly use front-of-package information to make purchasing decisions. This means that when children are given commercial foods, they may be receiving less exposure to vegetable flavors than their parents assume based on the way the products are labeled and marketed.”
The team created a database of over 500 commercial infant and toddler foods containing vegetables and documented inclusion of each vegetable and fruit in the product name; the form of the vegetable or fruit — such as whole, puree, juice or juice concentrate — and the position of the vegetable or fruit in the ingredient list. The researchers classified the vegetables based on the Department of Agriculture’s categories — Dark Green, Red/Orange, Legumes, Starchy and Other. They classified the fruits into two categories: Common Fruits, comprising pears, apples and grapes, and Other Fruits, including mangos, pineapples and cherries.
The team conducted statistical analyses to examine associations between: (1) vegetable and fruit category and inclusion in front-of-package product name; (2) vegetable and fruit form and inclusion in front-of-package product name; and (3) vegetable and fruit form and inclusion in front-of-package product name, by vegetable and fruit category.
“There was never an instance in which a vegetable or a fruit listed in the product name did not appear in the ingredient list,” said John Hayes, professor of food science, Penn State. “However, we still observed a disconnect between product names and ingredient lists. The front-of-pack labels did not always accurately represent the amount of various ingredients in the product, which are listed in descending order. This means parents may not be buying what they are hoping to buy if they only look at the name.”
Specifically, the team found that dark green vegetables were more likely than expected to appear in product names; yet, their average order in the ingredient list was close to fourth. Interestingly, the team found that common fruits were less likely than expected to be included in the product names when found as juice/juice concentrates, but more likely than expected to be included in product names when no form was listed.
“Fruit juice and fruit juice concentrates were found in almost all of the food products we examined, but were often excluded from product names, presumably to avoid drawing attention to the use of juice concentrates as sweeteners,” said Mackenzie Ferrante, graduate student, Colorado State University, and lead author on the paper.
Ferrante added that in the ingredient lists, fruits tended to be positioned close to the beginning of the ingredient list on the back or side of the package, indicating that the products were composed more of fruits than the vegetables suggested by front-of-package labeling.
“Companies producing infant and toddler foods sometimes use nutrition-related statements that can confuse the consumer and are intended to sway consumers to purchase their product,” said Susan Johnson, professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “Parents believe vegetables are important for their children’s health and that presumably they are purchasing food they believe contain significant amounts of vegetables because of front-of-package labeling. The discrepancies between which foods are included in the product name, where these foods fall on the ingredient lists, and whether these products actually taste like vegetables are key concerns to communicate to parents.”
The team's findings published on Feb. 8 in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
Other authors on the paper include Laura Bellows, associate professor of food science and human nutrition, Colorado State University, and Kameron Moding, assistant professor of human development and family studies, Purdue University.