Toddlers in Kandal province are consuming unhealthy foods and beverages at increasing rates, according to a new study, with nearly half of children between the ages of 10 and 14 months and almost 80 per cent of 15 to 19 month olds reportedly consuming diets which are dangerously high in sugar and salt.

The findings were presented at a workshop held in Phnom Penh on the supplementary feeding of children in rural and semi-urban areas of the province. The event was organised by Helen Keller International, through the Infant and Toddler Breeding Research Project, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.

According to Helen Keller, the diets of toddlers were divided into eight categories, based on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) infant and toddler feeding indicators.

“Toddlers in Kandal province generally consume unhealthy foods and beverages at a rate of 45.5 per cent among children aged 10-14 months to 79 per cent among toddler aged 15-19 months. The most common unhealthy foods and beverages are sweetened condensed milk and cakes. Half of the 15-19 month olds regularly consume sweetened condensed milk, and more than a third eat sweet and salty cakes,” the report said.

The study advised parents to avoid certain foods, including sweetened foods and beverages, for toddlers between the ages of 6 and 23 months, saying it could cause health problems now and in future. The research suggests that toddlers in this age group eat more fruits and vegetables.

“Unhealthy foods and beverages include many packaged products that are widely available, including crackers, sweet or salty biscuits, sweet milk, chocolate flavored drinks, most fruit juices and instant noodles. These are often high in added sugar and salt, and also unhealthy fats,” it said.

The study used data from a periodic follow-up survey conducted in Khsach Kandal district, in rural and semi-urban areas. Of these, 567 caregivers of toddlers from 10-14 months were selected. They were interviewed in six stages, until the toddlers were 19 months old.

“Good nutrition is very important for the growth and development of infants and toddlers,” said Helen Keller deputy director Hu Kreun.

He warned that despite overwhelming scientific evidence of the importance of a healthy diet, up to 50 per cent of toddlers between the ages of 6-23 months old were not getting a diet which met the WHO’s standard requirements.

“We have seen the results of our research. The study found that toddler’s consumption of unhealthy foods and drinks has increased alarmingly. On the other hand, we found that a low number were getting enough fruit and vegetables, which are high in nutrients. We also found that breast milk substitutes were overused in children aged 10-17 months,” he said, adding that the findings should act as inspiration for parents to consider the dietary choices they made for their children.

During this period, he said toddler’s caregivers need to provide a variety of complementary, nutritious, and safe supplements in addition to breast milk.

According to the Cambodian Demography and Health Survey 2022, about 28 per cent of Cambodian toddlers aged 6-23 months consume high-sugar beverages, and 21 per cent of them consume unhealthy food.

Prak Sophorn Neary, secretary of state at the health ministry, said that although Cambodia has a number of policies to manage infant and toddler food products, there are still no specific regulations and standards for them.

She said the shortcomings refer to regulations and standards on the composition and nutrient levels of dietary supplements. Product promotion and false nutritional claims were also a concern.

She warned that the lack of regulations and standards for these products may cause difficulties for consumers, especially parents and guardians, and may have detrimental long-term effects.

“The impact of loopholes in toddler food product regulations and standards could be severe if we overlook them and do not pay close attention. The results of this research give us a clear indicator that we need to seriously consider the problem of high rates of unhealthy breast milk substitutes,” she said.

Sophorn Neary added that policies and programmes that focus on promoting and improving infant and toddler nutrition by increasing the intake of healthy and easily available foods rich in nutrients are one of the health ministry’s highest priorities.