Ad campaigns for packaged foods vie for our attention as they announce, ‘Made with whole grains!’ or ‘With added fiber!’ We feel good about our purchases knowing we’re feeding our children whole grains and fiber. What food companies aren’t highlighting is how much sugar, sodium, fat grams, and unpronounceable ingredients are in their product. Reading the food label gives us a closer look into what really may be lurking inside those fun and colorful packages. Here are some things to look for:
- Can you pronounce all the ingredients? If not, they’re likely chemicals.
- Is sugar listed under different names several times? Such as high fructose corn syrup, corn, syrup, sugar, sugar alcohols, etc.
- Is sugar listed as one of the first ingredients? Ingredients are listed in descending order according to their content by weight.
- Is the ingredient list long or short? Short ingredient lists are generally healthier.
- Is the grain used in the product 100% whole, or are whole grains mixed with white flour? The key is to look for the number 100. If it doesn’t say “100% whole grain”, it’s not. Maybe only 20% of the product contains whole grains. See how tricky this gets?
- Do you see the names of artificial sweeteners? Sucralose, aspartame, saccharin? These chemicals have been linked to hyperactivity.
- Do you see numbers? Like Red #40 or Blue #1? These food colorings are made from chemicals that have also been linked to hyperactivity.
Many food companies use artificial ingredients to increase the shelf life of their product. By using artificial ingredients there is less waste, and therefore their bottom line is better protected. The best way to determine if a packaged food is healthy for your family is by taking the time to read the food label. Grab a package of something you eat and look on the label where sugar is listed. See how it is listed in grams? Four grams of sugar is equal to one teaspoon. That makes it a little easier to grasp.
The amount of sugar added to the diet per day should be limited to approximately 40 grams, or 10 teaspoons. Less is better, especially for children. Forty grams sound like a lot until you look at the label on a can of soda. Yep, 40 grams of sugar in that one can!
When our kids are at school they have many encounters with food. There are approximately thirty times each school year that our children eat a cupcake or doughnut brought in by a birthday child. There are also candy rewards, cafeteria options to buy cookies and flavored milk and holiday party sugar loads. Consuming large amounts of sugar can set the stage for many disease processes; including diabetes, heart disease (yes, in children and teens), overweight or obesity and hyperactivity. Here are some strategies to help our kids, and the kids around us, lessen their sugar intake:
- Send 100% whole wheat mini-bagels with nonfat cream cheese, or corn bread muffins for birthday treats
- Distribute non-food/non-candy rewards
- Volunteer to organize class parties and send colorful fruit with your child for holiday parties
- Encourage your PTO to hire vendors at school carnivals and events that supply healthy food options
- Each lunch with your child in the school cafeteria so you know what they are up against; then you can better guide them. There is a lot of sugar in many of those lunch boxes!
One pre-teen I worked with recently was rewarded in her school cafeteria after the first week of school for bringing the healthiest lunches from home. Her reward? A bag of cookies! Even though this 12-year-old was receiving a very profound mixed message, she was learning to pay attention to the amount of sugar she was eating and now had an internal gauge that helped her make her choice; she decided to throw the cookies away. Kids can learn to make healthy food choices; like in everything else they just need to be taught how and why. Providing fun and understandable nutrition education for kids can help them make healthy choices that can boost their health for the rest of their lives!
If we take care to ensure healthy food options for the children around us, we can have a great impact on the health of our whole community. It starts with awareness and reading food labels. If you want to make it really easy, spend the majority of your grocery shopping time in the produce isle where there are no food labels to decipher.
Nutritionist Darci Steiner provides nutrition counseling/education in the Parker and surrounding communities. For more information please visit www.attainablenutrition.com. ‘Like’ us on facebook for additional fun and practical nutrition tips www.facebook.com/AttainableNutrition.