Aggressive marketing of unhealthy supermarket food to babies and toddlers fuels "pester power" and exposes companies grooming youngsters for brand loyalty, University of Newcastle Laureate Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics Clare Collins says.
"Make no mistake, they are trying to get brand loyalty from babyhood and cementing that in toddlerhood to get people for life," Professor Collins said.
"Their marketing can convince you to buy anything if they can tap into your aspirations."
Professor Collins said busy young parents were susceptible to convenience foods that made claims on the label about "being healthy".
Research published this week in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health found nine in 10 food packages examined used "techniques specifically designed to target young children".
The study's lead author, Dr Alexandra Chung of Monash University, said the food industry employed marketing techniques with "deceptive messaging aimed at parents".
"Our research also found that parents are being bombarded with on-pack messaging," she said.
"Toddlers and babies are being marketed to by the baby food industry. When the children reach for these products, parents feel reassured from bogus health claims.
"The reality is most of these commercially produced products contain too much sugar and are not nutritionally adequate."
The authors analysed 230 product packs in supermarkets to uncover the marketing techniques targeted at children aged from six months to three.
More than half the products reviewed included bright colours and graphics, more than a third included images of a baby or child and one in six had brand characters.
Professor Collins said highly advertised products were generally more expensive.
"They essentially are confectionery. Treat them like that," she said.
"For generations, we've lived without Bluey breakfast cereal and we can live without it now."
The Public Health Association of Australia research prompted health experts to call for regulation of package labelling and promotional techniques used on baby and toddler food.
Professor Kathryn Backholer, a co-author on the study, said "this research shows we can't rely on big food companies spruiking products to babies and toddlers to do the right thing".
Professor Collins said enough evidence existed for governments to regulate advertising of such products.
"We have regulations around alcohol and cigarettes because we care about the population and their health," she said.
While some argue against such measures with "nanny state" claims, Professor Collins said regulation was worth it to "look after the most vulnerable and their children".
She said parents don't have to give in to "pester power", which refers to kids demanding specific foods and drinks - "usually those that are unhealthy and highly advertised".
"These products make parents' lives easier in the moment, but not in the long term. It's about tough love," she said.
"You don't have to be a puritan, but you can have negotiated purchases."
She suggested that parents "pre-negotiate purchases of unhealthy, treat items and write the agreed purchase on the grocery list".