Given I’m writing about making all your own food for your children’s birthday party, you’re probably starting to wonder why we actually need to do this? Are store brought foods really that bad? What is it that’s bad about them anyway?
I’m going to start by saying I totally get that everyone wants to do the best by their children. No one is deliberately feeding their kids foods that are bad for them. I’m definitely not here to criticise anyone, so please don’t get offended and stop reading! I really want to inform and educate and help you make some positive changes – so stick with me.
A little warning, this post became quite long – so I have broken it down into sections if you want to skip ahead! I’ve also linked to a lot of very informative reading – so don’t forget to Pin or bookmark this page for later!
As I said, please try and read it all as I’ve tried to cover everything here! At the end of the post I’ve listed a few steps for the overwhelmed…so at the very least look there! :)
Clever Marketing to Make a Profit – Why Packaging Can be Misleading
It wouldn’t be one of my label posts if I didn’t have a quick rant. Lets cut to the chase – the aim of big business is to make a profit. The larger the profit, the better (trust me – I’m an accountant). Which is fine, that’s what the economy is all about and enables many people to have paid employment. What’s not ok is the fact for a lot of companies; they don’t necessarily mind so much how they grow that profit.
And that’s where you come in.
Mums walk along the aisle looking for healthy snacks so they can sleep easy knowing they feed their children well. Big companies, being so helpful, weigh into that sentiment by labelling their products organic, natural, no added sugars and so on. These claims, along with pretty pictures of flowers and smiling animals on packets should make our choices easier right?
Wrong! Unfortunately you can’t afford to believe what you read. Don’t trust the smiling animals either; they are in on it too. Damn you cute little monkey.
The only way to be sure your kids are consuming food that is healthy, is to make most of it yourself and be able to read labels. I repeat – read labels – not look at labels. The labels are designed to encourage you to buy. Colours, logos and labels are designed to convey feelings of trust and look healthy – so that’s why kids foods are packaged that way. Sneaky huh?
Enough ranting – show me the facts! What’s in this stuff anyway?
Don’t worry my rant is over. I wanted to lay some background as to why we should be making our own food, or making smart choices when purchasing goods.
To demonstrate that you must be aware yourself of what is in a product, let’s look at a well known brand. The label (see picture below) states they these bars are artificial flavour free and 99% fruit. And yes, there are smiling animals (ok a smiling kid) on the packaging. Let’s breakdown the ingredients:
- Apple paste: 36% of this product is apple paste – so concentrated apples (which is very high in fructose). I confirmed with the company that their paste is in fact, just apples – however in some other brands the apple paste has added sugar and other nasties.
- Apple Juice concentrate: 34% of this bar is juice. Again, very high in fructose and without the fibre in the fruit to aid digestion. Concentrated fruit means you can easily consume a lot more than just eating a piece of real fruit.
- Sweetcorn/Pumpkin Puree/peach paste: in themselves not “bad” – although we don’t know the quality of the foods used.
- Citrus fibre: we don’t really know exactly what product this is, anyway – why are we adding fibre to a natural bar? Oh that’s right, its made up mainly of juice and fruit paste so we need to thicken it with something. Oops…sorry no more ranting.
- Fruit Pectin: pectin is a naturally occurring fibre found in some fruits that is used to thicken products. There is much written about this, as with most things it can be conflicting – some good and some bad. For the purposes of this post, I will leave it at that – however based on my approach to eating anything added to foods cannot be a good thing.
- Natural flavours: a whole other topic of discussion as both artificial and natural flavours are man made in a laboratory. When you cook at home do you add a “natural flavor” to your pumpkin soup to make it taste like pumpkin? No, cause you used real (and most likely good quality) pumpkins, so funnily enough it tastes like pumpkin.
After all that, we can see that each bar is 69.1% sugar.
Now for comparison, a Mars Bar is 30% sugar. Just saying.
Let’s look at another popular product called “Rice Wheels”. The label states they are 65% less fat, are gluten free, no preservatives, no artificial colours or flavours, no added MSG and only 1.9% sugar. Wow you are saying – finally something good!
Not so fast! Upon reading the label you will see they contain “flavours (who knows exactly what)”, acidity regulators 330 (which can cause reactions in certain people), sunflower oil and soy lecithin. And note it says no added MSG. Not “no MSG”. Basically to arrive at the flavor of this product, a whole heap of non-food like items have to be put into it. Yum. Perhaps not as bad as some other choices, but still not real food.
Out of interest, in June 2014 Choice completed a survey of 260 snacks and compiled their Health Star Rating. Of these products, only three received a five star rating. More than half the products earned just two and a half stars or less. Pretty gross.
Ok that doesn’t sound good – but tell us, why is it bad?
If you’ve stuck with me – thank you! Now let me tell you why this sugar and additives business is bad news.
Here are some hard facts about the state of our health from Monash University:
- It is predicted that if weight gain continues at current levels, by 2025, close to 80% of all Australian adults and a third of all children will be overweight or obese.
- On the basis of present trends we can predict that by the time they reach the age of 20 our kids will have a shorter life expectancy than earlier generations simply because of obesity.
- Health disorders in children like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, hypertension and sleep apnea can be directly attributed to childhood obesity.
Obviously this is all bad – however I find the second point the most shocking. I hope you do too…in which case, read on!
Excess sugar consumption is linked to many health complaints – diabetes, cancer, ageing and heart disease. For children in the short term, aside from the behavioural issues it can cause – we should very worried about the risk of diabetes. New research from The Mayo Clinic confirms there is a link between fructose consumption and Type 2 Diabetes. Eeek. Diabetes is not something you want your children to have. Especially if it’s Type 2 – meaning it could have been avoided.
And if you think you don’t consume “that much sugar” – I really urge you to look at your diet to be sure. I used to think the same – I used to think I was SUPER healthy. And I was consuming at least double the recommended amount. On a “good” day!
Preservatives and additives
Remember real food doesn’t need additives – it’s yummy to eat in its natural state. It goes off faster as it’s supposed to go bad if not consumed within a certain amount of time. I’m going to borrow a quote from a great blog post I read at The Kitchen Classroom:
“If you eat too much food made by people made in white coats . . . you end up seeing people in white coats”
Joe Cross, Overfed & Undernourished
As I’ve mentioned before, I love the Trusted Trolley! Such a great resource – so to illustrate some of the facts about preservatives, I’m going to quote directly from them:
- Over 300 food additives are permitted in Australia of which at least 30 are known or suspected carcinogens.
- There is significant evidence that some additives cause hyperactivity and other associated problems in children.
- The average Australian consumes approximately 5kg of additives each year.
- Food additives have been associated with a range of food intolerance symptoms including asthma, behavioural disorders, gastric irritation, headaches, learning difficulties and skin rashes.
- Most food additives are tested in isolation, rather than in combination with other additives. The long-term effects of consuming a combination of different additives are currently unknown.
The scariest part about preservatives and additives is the unknown – and as we are consuming an increasing amount of them, this should be alarming.
Seed Oils (Vegetable Oils)
This topic could also be another longer post, however I will keep it brief and link to some other great articles. Seed Oils are polyunsaturated oils and can be labeled on products as many things – vegetable, sunflower, rice bran, canola and many more. Polyunsaturated vegetable oils are not stable to heat and are linked to heart disease and other chronic illnesses. I personally avoid any of these oils, preferring to consume natural unprocessed oils such as olive, coconut and macadamia.
As an aside, Palm Oil is thought to be stable at high heat, however due to the devastating destruction of rainforest (over 300 football fields of rainforest are destroyed every hour in South East Asia to make way for more Palm Oil Plantations), you must be careful to source sustainable Palm Oil. Unfortunately it goes by several hundred names (including vegetable oil), so even reading the label may not be enough.
Borneo Orangutan Survival Australia has a quick tip – if the product’s saturated fat content is around 50%, the chances of it containing palm oil are very high.
A Word on gluten…I won’t cover it here as I’ve previously published a series on it, so please check it out if you want to know more!
Thanks – now you have banned everything I normally buy – what do I feed my children?
Time is the issue for most of us, I totally understand not everyone has the time (or inclination) to make everything – and not everyone has a Thermomix. So what options do you have?
Well firstly you have to decide what is acceptable to you and your family. Are you ok with a little gluten – or do you want to avoid it completely? Are you sugar free? Do your children have known allergies? If you decide you want to avoid all gluten, sugar, seed oils and preservatives – then sorry, but you will pretty much have to make everything!
Good news is, there are some pretty quick snacks you can whip up – and as they are full of nutrients and good fats – they should be filling. Start small, perhaps try to make one thing a week and see how you go. Once you start you will find it easier to continue!
Here are some tips for some quick gluten, sugar and preservative free children’s snacks (aimed at younger children):
- Avoid dried fruits and serve fresh fruit with protein – i.e. cheese or nuts. This helps slow the absorption of sugar. An example is berries and nuts or cheese. I generally serve a few small pieces of fruit, some cubes of cheese and some nuts.
- Some carrot sticks or capsicum with pesto or hummus
- Homemade banana bread or banana cake
- Homemade biscuits, crackers or slice
- Natural Yoghurt – you can add a small amount of fruit or sprinkle with LSA or granola
- Make some veggie patties – process some different vegetables together, add some cheese and egg and fry into patties (make in advance so you can pull them out when needed)
As a side note, if your family isn’t used to eating some of these things, the transition may be a little “bumpy”, for example – natural yoghurt tastes very different to flavoured yoghurts! So be prepared…but don’t give up! Here are some great tips on transitioning yoghurts.
Some bonus tips to make things easier on you
- Find a few “go-to” recipes that are quick, easy and have a few ingredients you always have on hand. Save them in Pinterest or wherever you bookmark things so they are quick to refer to.
- Try and have a time during the week you prep – bake a quick cake or slice and cut up pieces of cheese and carrots etc., so during the week it’s all ready.
- If that doesn’t happen – try and always do “extra” of things when making dinner – for example, if you are cutting cheese, cut extra for snacks.
- Try and find dishes that serve multiple purposes – for example pesto can be eaten with carrots, added to scrambled eggs or served with pasta (“normal” or zucchini spirals).
Things to be aware of
- Sometimes items that appear healthier may not be. To quote from the IQS Kids Cookbook, a “no added sugar” apple juice and a glass of coke both have 8-10 teaspoons of sugar.
- A snack pack of sultanas and the same amount of jellybeans both have six teaspoons of sugar. Dried fruit is not always a healthy alternative.
- Muesli bars are not always the healthy option we may think. Georgia at Well Nourished has published a fantastic article about the ingredients in muesli bars.
This has been too overwhelming – where on earth do I start?
After this post, if that is how you are feeling – sorry! Here are few action steps to take that should allow you to start to make some small, incremental changes without having a freak out!
- Breathe. There is a lot of information out there. Nothing is going to happen if you don’t stop today. Just aim to start tomorrow.
- Think about any snacks you purchase for your family.
- Pick one of these – only ONE!
- Read the label – (if you’re not sure how to – see my post!) do you recognise the ingredients? Are there any numbers on there (i.e. preservatives)? If so, check them out (using an app or Trusted Trolley) to see if they are safe. Are there any seed oils? Anything else suss?
- If you’re not happy with step 2 – then look for an alternative product. If you don’t find one, look for something you can make yourself.
- Work through all the snacks you buy, then look at your meals and any packaged products you use in those. In time, you will have worked through everything! Once you get started you will gain momentum. And it will get easier – Promise.
Once you have worked through most things, you will probably find you are eating mostly whole foods prepared by yourself – then you can say you “JERF”! Or not, up to you. As you know I don’t like to label, but I had to get that one in there!
At the end of the day feeding your children these things every now and again won’t kill them. We all have to be realistic about our time constraints and the pace of life we choose to live. However I think it is crucial we all pay attention to the labelling on foods and not be fooled by pretty packaging and false claims. If you make the right choices at least 80% of the time then you are doing a good job! Remember to choose wisely and be aware, as we are responsible for setting our children’s taste preferences for their lives.
Which is pretty awesome really.
And just remember…a little bit more time in preparing food might save you a lot of time later at the doctors office… :)
I hope this hasn’t been too much for everyone – please let me know what you think! Too much? Not enough? Any questions? Is anyone eating something processed whilst reading this?
If you would like to see a list of healthy products I buy, please see my list. I’ll be adding a Pantry List here as well :)
Natural & Artificial Flavours: EWG
For Additives to Avoid: The Trusted Trolley (this is a simple one pager – you can also search for additives by number on their blog)
Preservative & Additive Information: chemical maze, “E Number Guide” iPhone App
More information on preservatives and suggested products to buy: My Kitchen Classroom
Food Scores: The EWG now has food scores on their website – find your product and see how they rate it. As it’s in the US only relevant for products from there.
Alternative Sweetners and personal experience with quitting sugar – Well Nourished
Catalyst Report on Toxic Sugar
General Healthy Eating Advice
Pantry List – Well Nourished
A Guide to Establishing Healthy Eating Habits – again on Well Nourished!
Other posts in the Children’s Party Series: