New research has found toddler formulas are less nutritious than cow's milk, contain more sugar and less protein, despite being four times the price.
The study by Deakin University and VicHealth analysed 50 milks targeted at children aged one and up and found they were priced at four times that of fresh cow's milk.
Some milks cost $1.02 per 200ml serve, compared to just $0.26 for cow's milk. A month's worth of formula, they found, would cost $23.56 more than regular milk if consumed daily.
Some formulas also contained 8g more sugar (per 200ml) than fresh milk. This. they found, meant a child who drank this daily would consume an extra 240g – equivalent to 60 teaspoons, per month than fresh milk.
The study looked at Stage 3 formulas, which unlike those formulated and aimed at infants under 12 months who can not yet have cow's milk, are not needed for toddlers aged one and older.
VicHealth CEO Dr Sandro Demaio described the toddler milks as "completely unnecessary", saying they contained less protein and many less calcium than regular milk.
Dr Demaio said VicHealth was concerned manufacturers were using aggressive marketing tactics to create the illusion the milks were essential for ensuring good health, which was possible due to a regulatory loophole. One tactic was to use 'mum influences' to spruik products on social media, often without declaring the posts were part of a paid partnership.
" ....manufacturers are using Instagram influencers, targeted digital advertising and on-pack claims to try and lure Australian families into believing these ridiculously priced products are 'essential' for their child's health."
The milks could also potentially posed long-term health risks to children, Dr Demaio said, adding the products were under regulated in Australia.
"This is potentially dangerous, as toddler milks could be harmful to the health of growing children. If children consume these toddler products instead of exploring regular foods and drinks, they won't have a chance to develop healthy eating habits that are vital for a long, healthy and happy life."
Researchers also compared the price of toddler yoghurts and snacks compared to general consumption products and found on average, toddler yoghurts cost $2.20 per serve than regular yoghurt.
Toddler fruit-based snacks were also found to be 12 times as expensive as fresh fruit and contained considerably more sugar – 40g vs 9.2g. Toddler dried fruit cost eight times more than regular products.
Dietitian Alex Parker from The Biting Truth said the marketing tactics could sway parents with 'too good to be true' claims and agreed the formulas weren't needed for healthy toddler. Providing a healthy, balanced diet was a better approach for ensuring optimal health, she said.
"As a dietician I always recommend for kids aged 12 months, they can have cow's milk and they don't need those special toddler products," she said.
"They definitely aren't necessary for a toddler to receive the nutrients they need for a healthy diets. In a lot of ways if a toddle is consuming those milks and other toddler products, they are missing the opportunity to have whole foods and develop those healthy eating behaviours at an early age, so it's not something I'd recommend."
"It does infuriate me, especially those companies that have the marketing budget and use influencers online to promote these products via social media, because it's very powerful for vulnerable parents who are led to believe they are necessary for their toddler."