Toddler milk is a new beverage category marketed for children between the ages of 12 and 36 months-old. Generally, these beverages consist of fat-free cow’s milk, vegetable oils and corn syrup. Contrary to health experts’ recommendations, the sales of toddler milk products are increasing rapidly. It is thought that the labeling of these drinks can confuse parents; especially when using structure/functions claims (claims that describe how an ingredient affects the human body). To add to the body of knowledge regarding the impact of labeling on consumers’ perceptions, the purpose of this study was to examine how these structure/function claims influence parents’ beliefs about toddler milks.

A convenience sample of US parents of children between the ages of 1 to 5 years-old were recruited (n=2,218) via online panel research companies.  Participants were randomly assigned into three groups to view a toddler milk label with one of three structure/function claims: 1) “New and Improved” (control claim), 2) “Supports Brain Development Omega-3 DHA”, or 3) “Immune Health Dual Prebiotics and Vitamins”. Next, they were asked to complete an online survey consisting of questions about their perceptions and attitudes of the product shown to them. The survey assessed six outcomes: 1) perceived healthfulness of the product compared to cow’s milk, 2) the intention to serve the product to a toddler, 3) perceived healthfulness of the product, 4) perceived pediatrician approval of the product, 5) perceived brain development benefits of the product, and 6) belief of immunity related benefits of the product. Demographic characteristics were also assessed. Statistical analysis used two-tailed tests for analytic samples, chi-squared tests for categorical variables, and ANOVA for continuous variables.

Results showed that 40% of participants had served toddler milk to their child; 79% believed toddler milk is as healthy or healthier than cow’s milk. Participants exposed to the ‘brain’ and the ‘immunity’ claim were more likely to incorrectly believe that toddler milk was healthier than cow’s milk (p<0.001). They also had higher intention of giving toddler milk to their child, had strong beliefs that pediatricians would recommend this product, and believed the products would prevent illness in toddlers compared to the control claim (p<0.001). Participants exposed to the ‘brain’ claim believed toddler milk would make their child smarter compared to the immunity and control claim (p<0.001). When examining demographic variables, Latinos were more likely to perceive the product with the ‘brain’ claim as healthful compared to non-Latinos (p=0.4).

Study strengths: This study included a diverse sample of parents of young children. The randomized design and the control label helped to reduce confounding factors. Furthermore, the study used an unfamiliar toddler milk product which helped isolate the effects since consumers were unlikely to have preexisting opinions about the product/brand.

Study limitations: This study used a convenience sample from online survey companies and therefore is not generalizable since the demographic composition differs from the general population. This study also used experimental labels that were shown to participants for a short period of time; it is possible that these labels were confused with infant formulas.

What this means for your practice: This study highlights the need for stronger regulations of toddler milks. In the interim, helping parents/guardians of your patients better understand and interpret product labels and claims may be necessary in addition to continued reinforcement of appropriate beverage choices for young children. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that children between the ages of 12 months and 2 years of age should be served unflavored, unsweetened whole milk. Children over the age of two should be served low-fat or non-fat milk. Flavored milks are best reserved for special occasions due to the added sugar content.

Original citation: Richter, A. P. C., Duffy, E. W., Taillie, L. S., Harris, J. L., Pomeranz, J. L., & Hall, M. G. (2021). The impact of toddler milk claims on beliefs and misperceptions: A randomized experiment with parents of young children. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In press.

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