"Is it really a good idea to get our kids hooked on all things chocolate at the same time they're learning to walk?" one blogger posted on Momlogic.com.
Introduced by Mead Johnson Nutrition Co. in February as a beverage for toddlers who are transitioning from infant formula or breast milk, Enfagrow Premium's toddler chocolate and vanilla formulas are milk-based but contain 19 grams of sugar per 7-ounce serving. The Glenview, Ill., company said the product is no sweeter than chocolate milk or orange juice that toddlers drink and contains added nutrients that milk lacks, such as Omega-3 DHA and prebiotics.
"The toddlers years can be particularly challenging since food preferences may be erratic and unpredictable," said Mead Johnson spokesman Chris Perille. "Products such as Enfagrow Premium can play a role in helping children achieve a more balanced, healthy daily diet."
Perille said the idea is to get a toddler to consume milk, even flavored milk, because it will lead to a healthier lifestyle.
Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, disagreed.
Nestle, who purchased a 29-ounce package of Enfagrow recently for $18.99 (22 servings) to study the product, said it will lead children who drink it to crave sugary beverages.
"You want kids to be interested in eating a very, very wide range of foods because variety helps create nutritional balance," she said. "You don't want them to think that every food needs to be sweet or salty."
Nestle criticized Enfagrow on her blog http://www.foodpolitics.com. The post automatically feeds to the Atlantic Monthly's website and has been cross-posted on mommy blogs across the Internet.
She complained to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, arguing that the product is claiming health benefits for children younger than 2. FDA spokesman Michael Herndon said the product is considered a food and not an infant formula under FDA guidelines and does not appear to be in violation of the law as it doesn't claim to "cure" anything, only to "support" normal body functions.
Enfagrow is in what the food industry calls the "follow-on formula" category, which takes the concept of baby formula and extends it into toddlerhood. Abbott Nutrition produces Similac Go & Grow, for older infants and toddlers, but it's unflavored.
JP Morgan analyst Terry Bivens said infant formula is the "bread and butter" of companies such as Abbott, a unit of Abbott Laboratories, and Mead Johnson.
Mead Johnson is one of three dominant competitors in the global pediatric nutrition market, which mainly consists of infant formula and toddler milk. Mead's Enfamil and Abbott's Similac each have about 40% of the market, followed by Nestle's Good Start with about 10% of the market, according to analyst Dave Sekera at Morningstar.
In 2009, Mead reported total sales of $2.8 billion, with $1.9 billion from infant formula and $900 million from children's nutritional products, mostly toddler milk.
The company launched 30 new products in 2009 after dry spell of several years, Sekera said, and has a new strategy that aims to extend the amount of time consumers spend using their products beyond early infancy.
Jessica Parisi would do just about anything to get her 1-year-old to stop throwing food or feeding it to the dog. She's even tried masking veggie protein links as hot dogs.
"Sometimes he'll eat blueberries, and other times he'll say 'No blueberries!' and throw them," said the Mount Prospect, Ill., resident.
Two weeks from his second birthday, Chase is underweight, and Parisi says she would gladly try chocolate- or vanilla-flavored toddler formula if she thought he would eat it.