Recently, a new piece of research has been released by Glasgow University(1) all about the snacks we feed our children and whether they live up to their claims.
Many fruit based processed snacks say they provide one of the five-a-day.
This study was looking to find out if this claim is true.
They found that more often than not, there are not enough fruit products in these snacks to qualify as one of the five-a-day, and that they may even contain more sugar than we might realise on account of the fruit purees and concentrated fruit juices used to make them.
These are not biscuits and cakes, these are fruit based products that claim to be healthy and directly appeal to children with their pretty coloured packaging and cartoon characters.
So here we are seeing health professionals investigating food manufacturers over their health claims and finding them wanting. This sounds like something we definitely want to listen to. But what is the take-home message?
Is it just another 'sugar is bad' story?
Well, we all know that too much sugar is bad for us, and the more fruit and veg we give our children the better.
I think there is more to this than just 'think about your sugar intake'. The message here is consider carefully who you listen to. Where do we get our children's health advice from? Do we just trust what we see around us, or do we need to scratch the surface a bit more?
Being a parent is an amazing and difficult job. We are often tired, emotionally drained and delighted all at the same time! So I don't want to spend my time analysing all the information that comes my way. I just want someone to tell me what to do, and if it looks easy, even better!
It turns out that this feeling of wanting both a quick solution, and the best for our kids, is exactly what is being exploited by food manufacturing companies looking to sell their products to us.
And looking at the techniques they are using, this is fantastic marketing!
They are providing fruit-based products which our kids like the look of and may actually eat (on account of the fun cartoons, free activities and toys that come with them). They tell us that by buying their food we are choosing healthy and nutritious products, which contain fruit, even one of the five-a-day holy grail! What could be better than that?
An Australian study in 2017 started to debunk these marketing myths. It showed that products like breakfast cereals, snacks and confectionery that were commonly targeted at children frequently made health and nutrition claims. But really those foods were very high in sugar, leading them to conclude that 'the degree of inappropriate or inaccurate statements and claims present is concerning, particularly on packaging designed to appeal to children'.(2)
It's a sad fact that while we may want to make the best choices for our kids, the main factor driving many food companies is profits.
Happy kids make for good profits, and kids get happy on sugar.
So what's wrong with that? Why is sugar so unhealthy?
First of all let me set the record straight - without sugar, you would die. It's the petrol for the engine of every cell in your's and your kids' bodies, and especially the brain - which basically lives on sugar syrup.
That's why a sugar hit feels SO GOOD. Your brain gets a massive boost of energy and you can feel awake, alert and ready to go... or go crazy if you are a kid...
We all need a certain amount of sugar per day, and it's easy to get that from carbohydrates (which are just a bunch of sugar molecules all joined together) like pasta, bread and rice. And you get naturally occurring sugar in fruit and veg. It's not tough to get enough, but it is easy to get too much.
Let's go back to basics: the main reason we eat is to take in the chemicals we need to survive (sugar, vitamins, protein etc.) What prompts us to eat is a craving (hunger, anxiety, seeing a massive cake in the display stand...)
Most cravings go away if we are feeling full - our body tells us that we don't need anything more. Amongst other things, a hormone (called CCK) is released by our guts when they have plenty of food to digest, which tells the brain to turn off those cravings.
So it makes sense that if we give ourselves less bulk to digest (no matter whether its sugary food or not) we and our kids will feel hungry again soon.
But if we give ourselves more to digest - more bulk - we'll be free from the cravings for longer.
The classic comparison is raisins vs. grapes. If you eat half a cup of grapes, you have consumed 50 calories and feel full for ages. But to eat half a cup of of raisins, you'd be looking at 220 calories! (3). Of course you could eat fewer raisins, but then you'd be hungry again much quicker.
This is called calorie density. A food with lower calorie density (like the grapes) will keep you full for longer without giving you as many calories.
When fruit is processed it becomes more dense and less filling. So when we give our kids processed 'fruit' snacks, they DO get the energy they need, but they WILL feel hungry again really quickly. Cue desperate pleas for more snacks!
In the end they could end up eating way more calories than they need before their body tells them to stop eating (remember that the body doesn't count calories, it counts fullness).
This means that rather than one of their five-a-day, as the marketing suggests, we could be potentially feeding our kids sugar labelled as "fruit", simply because a fruit was involved in the manufacturing process at some point.
Therefore, our kids are more likely to over-eat as their bodies won't feel full enough with just one portion. And the excess sugar could also contribute to tooth decay.
So look carefully at the 'healthy' fruit snacks, fruit juices, and fruit yoghurts, and check you are not falling for a marketing campaign getting you to buy plain old sugary foods.
It's difficult when a shortcut would be so much easier! But now we know it doesn't pay to trust people who claim to be on our side and make health claims they can't back up. And we definitely shouldn't trust people who stand to make a profit from our kids' health potentially suffering.
But what can we do? Well, whenever we hear claims about our kids' health, we would do well to keep those first two principles in mind to make sure we are only listening to worthwhile information, and we've also put together some Welly and Bloom top tips for snack survival for you below- no parent guilt required!
Welly and Bloom top tips for snack survival
1) Audit your snack drawer (and fridge for yoghurts and fruit juice) - don your most serious glasses and read the back of the packets.
If you have 'fruit' snacks in there - check if they contain fruit puree or concentrated fruit juice - consider not replacing them once you've used them up, you might save some money in the process too. Here's a website made by the NHS with some great snack swap ideas when you are shopping - including an app to check how healthy things really are!
2) Reduce the options - if the kids know there are biscuits and sweet snacks in the house - they'll use any methods (including stealth) to get them.
Save your sanity, and make it so you can truthfully look them in the eye and say 'dear, there ARE no biscuits. It's fruit or nothing.' They might get cross initially, but eventually, you'll see them munching a satsuma or a banana quite happily.
3) Fill your fruit bowl - don't hold back.
Buy good quality, tasty fresh fruit and replenish the bowl before it's empty. It'll still be cheaper than processed snacks, and anything left over can make a great weekend crumble (maybe even a Gruffalo crumble?) or fruit salad. No one likes a squishy pear.
4) Plan your treats - rather than every day (or every hour) being treat time, plan times in the week when the kids can look forward to something different - think Friday night ice-creams, or Sunday afternoon sweet treats.
That way everyone knows where they stand, and as time goes on it will become a family tradition.
5) Don't put pressure on yourself - those Pinterest images of cucumbers in the shape of leopards are NOT necessary to get your kids to eat them.
The fanciest fruit art I've ever achieved was using this apple corer to make slices...
6) Try and be consistent - have in mind that kids who have eaten well and are full will have more energy, play better, and behave better, so a short-term shortcut (although sometimes necessary!) will not always work out in the long term.
You are the boss, and you know how to look after them better than they do - and don't forget it!
7) Ditch the guilt!
Despite your best efforts, some kids will just plain refuse. Don't give up, do your best, and DON'T let parent guilt get you down. Sugar is not poison. Check out this lovely video for top tips on fussy eaters.
(1) - García AL, Morillo-Santander G, Parrett A, et al 'Confused health and nutrition claims in food marketing to children could adversely affect food choice and increase risk of obesity' Archives of Disease in Childhood Published Online First: 04 April 2019. doi: 10.1136/archdischild-2018-315870
(2) - Pulker CE , Scott JA , Pollard CM . Ultra-processed family foods in Australia: nutrition claims, health claims and marketing techniques. Public Health Nutr 2018;21:38–48.doi:10.1017/S1368980017001148