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New landmark study finds gap in dietary iron intake has steadily increased since 2002

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC— Nearly 20 percent of infants (6 to 12 months old) do not get enough iron in their diet, putting them at risk for sub optimal cognitive development, according to the latest Nestlé Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS). Iron is a critical nutrient to support learning ability and brain development. The study also shows that many young children do not consume a single serving of either fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or dairy daily and miss the mark on nutrients that are important for development and overall health, including vitamin D, fiber and potassium.

Started in 2002 by Gerber, the third survey in the FITS series (FITS 2016) was designed and conducted by RTI International in partnership with the Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne, Switzerland. FITS is the largest dietary intake study in the United States focused on infants, toddlers and preschoolers. As part of the company’s Nestlé for Healthier Kids initiative to help 50 million children lead healthier lives by 2030, FITS helps to build, share and apply nutritional knowledge. Nearly 10,000 parents and caregivers of infants, toddlers and preschoolers have now been surveyed over three FITS studies. A team of pediatric experts and nutrition scientists from leading academic, medical, government and research institutions collaborated with Nestlé and Gerber on the most recent FITS study.

“Good nutrition during a child’s early years is particularly critical because it sets the stage for healthy eating throughout life,” said Wendy Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., vice president, Nutrition, Health and Wellness for Nestlé USA. “The latest FITS data confirms that more work is needed to improve the diets of young children and gives us insight into areas we must focus on to foster healthy eating habits.”  

Key findings of the study include:

  • The percentage of infants falling short on iron has more than doubled since 2002

The percentage of infants between 6 and 12 months old who do not consume the recommended amount of iron has increased from 7.5 percent in 2002 to 12 percent in 2008 to 18 percent in 2016. Infants typically have enough iron from birth until around 4 to 6 months, at which time they must consume dietary sources of iron to achieve adequate intakes and avoid the risk for iron deficiency. About 95% of babies over 6 months do not eat beef, an excellent source of iron, and infant cereal consumption, the long-standing leading food source of iron for infants, is at an all-time low with only slightly more than half now eating it. Only three percent of 6- to 12-month-olds received an iron supplement.

  • More than one quarter of toddlers and preschoolers do not eat a single serving of vegetables on a given day

Study findings show that about 27 percent of children between 1 and 3 years of age do not eat a single discrete serving of vegetables on a given day. Of those who do, French fries are the most common vegetable consumed. Mixed dishes (like pasta dishes containing vegetables) become more common as children get older.

“The FITS 2016 findings reveal some improvements in young children’s diets, such as an increase in breastfeeding, and eating fruit, with less drinking of fruit juice,” said Andrea Anatar, RTI senior research public health analyst, who led the study. “We also found that infants and young children who participate in WIC – the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children-- were less likely to fall short on iron, zinc and vitamin D, and less likely to overconsume saturated fat compared to some non-participants.”

In the last 30 years, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additionally, the study showed disturbing nutrient shortfalls start early and many young children consume excess sweets and sodium:

  • Fewer than 25 percent of infants 0- to 12-months get adequate amounts of vitamin D.
  • More than 75 percent of 1- to 3-year-olds do not get recommended amounts of vitamin D.
  • Fewer than 10 percent of 1- to 3-year-olds get adequate amounts of dietary fiber and potassium.
  • About 75 percent of 2- to 3-year-olds exceed the upper limit for sodium, and more than 60 percent exceed saturated fat guidelines.
  • About 30 percent of 1-year-olds and 45 percent of 2- to 3-year-olds drink sugar-sweetened beverages on a given day, with fruit flavored drinks being the most common.

The latest FITS findings are well-timed to inform food policy discussions, including the development of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 and reconsideration of the benefits offered in the WIC food package which was last revised in 2009.

RTI International was responsible for study and sample design, recruiting and collecting data from eligible respondents, analyzing and interpreting the findings, and disseminating the results.  

For more information about FITS, visit https://www.nestleusa.com/nutrition/fits