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High sugar, salt levels in packaged foods for children in SEA: Study

BANGKOK (Xinhua) — A new study released on Thursday revealed high sugar and salt levels in packaged foods for Southeast Asian children aged 6 months to 3 years, as well as the widespread use of potentially misleading labeling and lax regulations on product composition and sales.

The study, supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and partners of the Consortium for Improving Complementary Foods in Southeast Asia (COMMIT), assessed more than 1,600 infant cereals, purees, pouches, snacks, and ready-to-eat meals marketed at young children in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

The study found that 44 per cent of the products contained added sugars and sweeteners, escalating to 72 per cent for snacks and finger foods, and that more than one-third of the products exceeded recommended sodium levels.

In the study of consumer behavior, commercially produced complementary foods are integral to the diets of Southeast Asian children, with a 45 per cent increase in sales over the past five years.

It also found that none of the seven countries had national policies aligned with international guidance on the composition and labeling of these foods. Additionally, several countries lack legal measures to regulate sugar and salt content.

Extensive use of claims was also found, with claims about product composition or nutrient content appearing on nearly 90 per cent of the products assessed. Common claims appearing on products with high sugar, salt or fat content included “all natural,” “good source of vitamins,” and “no artificial ingredients.”

Debora Comini, UNICEF regional director for East Asia and the Pacific, stated, “Good nutrition in the first years of life helps children thrive, fueling prosperous families, productive workforces, and powerful economies.”

UNICEF and COMMIT partners are calling for improvements in government regulations, including the prohibition of added sugars and sweeteners, limitations on sugar and sodium content, the prevention of misleading marketing, strict monitoring and enforcement of regulations by the government, as well as support for parents to navigate deceptive marketing on commercially produced complementary foods.