Cereal offenders

Laura Sharp

I blog a lot about how tough it can be, as a parent, to navigate the claims food manufacturers make about foods they promote to children. Some products say they’re ‘sugar free’ but they’re full of sweetener; others highlight their calcium content for bone growth but also pack in more than a decent pinch of salt. It’s a part of our food culture that feels specifically designed to bamboozle, right when parents’ decision-making powers are at their most fragile. And there’s one group of products which seem to be more confusing than most: cereal.

Choose the right type of cereal (like wheat biscuits, porridge oats or cornflakes – check out the advice in our guidelines for childcare) and it’s a healthy start to the day, and a great snack at any time. Some are fortified with iron and other vitamins to help your child get the recommended amounts.

But pick up the wrong box and you can be getting your child into a habit you don’t want to pass on: a sugar habit. Next time you’re in the cereal aisle at the supermarket, have a closer look at the boxes. Many of the cereals targeting children with colourful characters and free gift promotions are also the ones packing in the most sugar. Check out the nutrition labels: anything with more than 22.5g of total sugar per 100g of cereal is way too high for any of us to eat regularly, let alone children. If there’s a colour-coded nutrition label on the box, and it’s showing red for sugar, it’s not one for every day.

In the last week, Which Magazine published a report on cereal bars which found some contain more than 40% sugar; as much as you’d find in some chocolate bars. Yet their marketing can be confusing, suggesting they’re a healthy snack option for children.

In fact, cereal bars are often so high in sugar that they’re counted as confectionary as far as childcare and schools are concerned. That’s why we recommend avoiding them if you provide food for kids – for example, our guidelines for nurseries suggest lots of alternative snack ideas that will keep little ones full of energy without loading them up with sugar, while school food standards ban them completely from breakfast and after-school clubs, from lunch and break time menus, and from school vending machines.

Parents really want better information about the foods they choose for their children, and that shouldn’t mean having to study detailed nutritional information when they’re trying to get round the supermarket quickly. That’s why we’ve been calling for more work to make food labels even clearer and more consistent, particularly on products aimed at children – and why we want to see the next government really get hold of this issue. We’d like to see colour-coded nutrition labelling on all products, as well as clear information about what makes a portion size for a child.

In the week when the latest Children’s Dental Health survey also announced that half of eight year olds are still suffering with cavities, we need to do much more to help parents steer children away from developing a sugar addiction which can last a lifetime.

Newsround food survey: children missing out on five-a-day

A new survey by Newsround has found many children still aren’t getting enough fruit and veg, and that half of families don’t get the chance to sit down and eat together every day.

The poll, of children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, asked 7-12 year-olds questions about their daily diet.

Tricia Mucavele (1)Our Head of Nutrition, Patricia Mucavele says: “Some of these findings are really encouraging – almost all children say they’re trying to eat better, by doing things like drinking more water and eating more fruit and veg. So children’s understanding of what a healthy diet means seems to be improving.

“But that’s not always translating into how they actually eat day-to-day. That’s where good food in childcare and in schools has such a fundamental role – helping children to get into healthy habits from the very start. The next government has a big responsibility to protect and build on what’s working well on food in nurseries and schools, to make sure we’re giving all children the best start when it comes to nutrition.

“That’s also why our mission to get families cooking is so important. If we want more children to eat well now and to grow up to be healthier adults, we need to give them the essential life skill of being able to cook for themselves. That means careful monitoring of how cooking in the curriculum is making a difference, and investing in spreading basic cooking skills as a public health priority.”

Medway childcare providers leading the way on healthy food

Children's Food Trust

Nurseries, pre-schools and childminders from across Medway are to celebrate this week, after joining a special programme to improve the food they offer and how they encourage children to eat healthily.

Almost 90 early years providers in the area will come together at a special event tomorrow to mark the first anniversary of their work to offer healthier menus and cooking activities for children.

Medway Council developed the programme based on our Eat Better, Start Better guidelines alongside specialist support and training from the charity, after being commissioned by Medway Council’s Public Health and Early Years Quality Teams.

The Medway programme is now set to enter its second year, with the ultimate aim of reaching more than 3,500 children with healthier food in childcare.

Medway Director of Public Health, Dr Alison Barnett, says: “I’m delighted that so many have signed up to Eat Better, Start Better – it’s a testament to the real commitment here in Medway to giving children the healthiest start in life. We’re looking forward to building on their success and bringing even more of Medway’s providers on board this year.”

Cllr David Brake, Medway Council’s Portfolio Holder in charge of Public Health, says: “This programme is absolutely vital in educating children from a young age about the benefits of eating healthy. Under this scheme, our young people not only get to eat healthier foods but also find out why it is so important to do so along with their parents, who play a key part in ensuring healthy eating continues at home. I’m delighted Medway is leading the way on this fantastic initiative.”

Laura Whiting, our nutritionist, says: “If we want to improve children’s diets in the long-term, we have to start early and that’s why we need to support all childcare providers to offer healthy menus and get children cooking in their earliest years. By making it possible for childcare providers right across this area to have support and training on this, Medway really is leading by example and creating such a powerful legacy for the future.”

The blame game: everyone’s a loser

Claire   “Britain is in the grip of a child obesity epidemic. A third of UK children are now overweight or obese, making us one of the fattest nations in Europe. Last year, 26,000 kids were forced to have rotten teeth removed under general anaesthetic in hospital, due to poor diet and lack of brushing. In extreme cases they’re even facing controversial and risky stomach reduction surgery. We’re raising a generation of snackers and junk-scoffers, suffering from preventable illnesses. So whose fault is it and what can be done to fix it?

So starts the Telegraph’s review of a new two-parter starting on Channel 4 this week, no doubt to the usual living-room refrain of “blame the <parents/schools/doctors/shops/food industry>” (delete as appropriate).

Junk Food Kids screengrab

It’s so easy to focus on the question of ‘who’s to blame’ (we all are: for decades of wanting food faster, cheaper and to feed our cravings for sugar and salt), but it’s the second question that’s much more difficult…and much more important.

For children suffering the consequences of poor diet – whether that’s eating too much of the wrong things, not enough of the right things, not enough at all, or all of the above, the answers are far from simple. We live a world in which children are constantly bombarded by messages about food and food experiences from their earliest years – some subtle, some not-so-subtle and many which are conflicting. Lots of us weren’t given the legacy of cooking skills learned at school or at home to pass on to our kids. Not having the skills or confidence to cook from scratch makes life even more complicated when you’re trying to feed your children well on a shoestring. Places where children eat and buy food often don’t help them learn about making good decisions: becoming a savvy consumer takes time and experience, which children haven’t yet had.

Helping children to navigate this strange food world of ours is one of the most important and complex tasks parents face – with no expert training for the job. We all have to help out, if we’re going to be a healthier Britain. That’s why getting food right in childcare and school is so vital: making sure children get the energy and nutrients they need while at the same time, giving them experiences of lots of different foods and cooking styles. That’s why giving kids and families the skills they need to cook from scratch themselves and get smart with a food budget is one of the most important things we can do. It’s why fuelling real demand for healthier options for children when they eat out and buy food is a way to drive change.

We’re way past the time for pointing the finger of blame. It’s time we all got on the same team and helped children skill up for a healthier food future.

Claire’s our senior nutritionist. Email Claire.

Trust’s response to study on childhood obesity figures

The King’s College London researchers have found that childhood overweight and obesity steadily increased in England between 1994-2003, and has stabilised in the past decade.

Children’s Food Trust Head of Nutrition, Dr Patricia Mucavele, said: “Childhood overweight and obesity remains a high public health priority. As the researchers state monitoring and understanding trends in childhood obesity is important for informing policy initiatives. Although this study and other national surveys have suggested a levelling off of increases in child obesity, we still have one in four children aged between 4-5 years diagnosed as overweight or obese which increases to one in three by age 10-11 years. This is a real concern.

“Obese children are more likely to be ill, be absent from school due to illness, experience health-related limitations and require more medical care than normal weight children. Overweight and obese children are also more likely to become obese adults, and have a higher risk of morbidity, disability and premature mortality in adulthood due to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers.

“Supportive policies, environments, schools and communities are fundamental in shaping children’s choices, making the healthier choice of foods and regular physical activity accessible, available and affordable – thereby preventing obesity.

“There are stark inequalities in levels of child obesity, with prevalence among children in the most deprived areas being double that of those children in the least deprived areas.

“We are one of the many organisations who are working towards ensuring that all children, despite their circumstances or background, have access to nutritious food, which is why initiatives such as the government’s Universal Infant Free School Meals policy are so important.

“We believe that schools and other educational settings such as nurseries have a crucial role to play in developing healthy eating habits from an early age and by ensuring food and drinks provided are healthy, balanced and nutritious.

“The new school food standards and the Voluntary Food and Drink Guidelines for Early Years Settings in England help to limit the provision of high saturated fat, sugar and salt foods, and increase consumption of fruit and vegetables, across the day.

“The high prevalence of children currently diagnosed as overweight and obese suggests that there is still a lot we all need to do to protect and improve the health and wellbeing of children.”

A new year for children’s food and time to reflect

Our Chief Executive at the Children’s Food Trust, Linda Cregan, talks about the past year in children’s food, and the one ahead.

Christmas can put you in a reflective mood. Rest, family time and the prospect of a brand new year is often when you assess the past year’s successes and challenges, and look forward to the opportunities of the next year.

For many, work schedules don’t always let up before the Christmas holidays begin, so time for genuine reflection before the break is rare. But sometimes there are brief interludes, and I was fortunate enough to enjoy one of these earlier this month when I joined influential public sector catering colleagues at the House of Commons for a round table, hosted by Cost Sector Catering.

Our discussions, which will be shared by the magazine early next year, prompted me to think about the progress the Trust, our partners and others have made in improving the access to better food and food skills for our children during 2014 – and the fundamental challenges that we still need to address if we are to meet our goal of ensuring that every child enjoys the right to eat healthy, nutritious food, irrelevant of their personal circumstances.

In November it was the 25th anniversary of the signing of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child – a commitment to giving all children good nutrition as part of their inalienable right to a healthy, happy and fulfilled life – exactly what the Trust works everyday to achieve.

Yet a quarter of a century later, there are still too many children – and too many adults – in this country, who want for good, healthy food. They suffer a sort of malnutrition that is far from the haunting images of emaciated children on famine stricken plains that undoubtedly helped to shape the wording of the Convention back in 1989. This modern malnutrition stems from eating poor quality, processed food that is laden with high levels of salt, sugar and fat. It is a diet that condemns too many to obesity related illness and early death.

The implications for our society are profound. A quarter of adults and one in five school children are now obese, up from 15% just 20 years ago. Diabetes and other obesity related conditions are increasing too, and how awful is it that this year we were hearing of the return of rickets in some children. As well as costing lives this puts our NHS under intense pressure dealing with obesity related illnesses. NHS England Chief Executive Simon Stevens might well be justified for calling obesity ‘the new smoking’.

Of course significant strides have been made during 2014 to give more children access to healthy, nutritious food, and the Trust is proud to be playing a key role in these efforts.

The introduction of free school meals for infant pupils in 16,000 schools back in September was an historic time and has the potential to impact on the health and education of our children for years to come. Working with LACA and our other partners, our advisors are helping schools overcome practical issues associated with what is a major expansion of school meal provision.

Cooking is back in the school curriculum, and we’re training those who care for under-fives in how to provide food in line with the national food and drink guidelines, which we launched in 2012.

The introduction of the new school food standards, which the Trust has been instrumental in developing will come into force on 1 January and through our menu checking service we’re helping school caterers make sure that their new menus meet those standards.

Changing the cooking habits of families at home is equally important because this directly influences what children eat. Our network of 5,000 Let’s Get Cooking Clubs has helped to get more than three million children and adults cooking, with 58% of participants telling us that they make healthier food choices after taking part, and we were pleased to be able to reach more children and their families this year by extending cookery clubs into 50 Tesco stores for the entire summer holidays.

The Trust is working hard to make a positive difference but it’s clear to me and my colleagues that there is still much to do in this modern war against want.

Few of us can predict exactly what lies in store for us in 2015 but one thing is certain – the Trust, its partners and everyone concerned with children’s food won’t relent until we can fulfil the ambitions of the UN Convention and ensure that every child has the right to enjoy healthy and nutritious food.

Is healthy eating affordable?

Against the backdrop of a national obesity crisis, recent headlines have been full of claims that it’s cheaper to eat a diet of junk food than healthy meals. But is the research being misquoted?

Sparking the headlines, what the Cambridge University research actually looked at was the costs of different foods per 1,000 calories over a 10-year period. It found that the average cost of 1,000 healthy calories has risen faster than that of 1,000 unhealthy calories and cost almost three times more per calorie than in 2012.

The healthy foods (based on the Food Standards Agency nutrient profiling model) included canned tuna and tomatoes as well as fresh fruit and vegetables. The unhealthy foods were pizza, ice cream and the like.

Now, let’s just visualise those 1,000 calories…

1,000 healthy calories would be approximately…
14 cans of chopped tomatoes or
6 cans of tuna in spring water

1,000 unhealthy calories would be approximately…
1 cheese and tomato pizza or
1.2 litres of ice cream

You can see straight away that the 1,000 healthy calorie examples go a long way – these are large volumes of food. The unhealthy calories, by contrast, provide a much smaller quantity of food. Unhealthy calories might be cheaper – but they won’t satisfy you for long. And a lack of calories is generally not the problem we face in this county.

The 1,000 healthy calories also give a wider range of nutrients, vitamins and minerals. So in both quality and quantity they represent better value for money, despite their higher cost per 1,000 calories.

Prof Pablo Monsivais from the research team was the first to admit the study wasn’t about whether home cooked, healthy food can be cheaper than ready-meals. Speaking on Radio 4’s You and Yours he pointed out the importance of knowing which foods provide the most nutrients for the lowest cost.

People don’t shop by the calorie – they shop for the food that will satisfy them.

The problem comes when people don’t know how to cook from scratch using healthy ingredients. We worked with families living on tight budgets earlier this year and many told us they opted for cheap ready meals and processed foods precisely because they didn’t feel they had the skills or confidence to cook from scratch. The foods they were relying on were often high in saturated fat, sugar and salt while being low in essential minerals, vitamins and fibre.

Similarly, when we asked  professionals who work with children what would make the biggest difference to the families struggling on a limited food budget, cooking education for children and parents was one of the most frequent responses.

People need practical solutions. That’s why we’ve trained staff from more than 40 organisations to run practical Cook and eat on a budget courses. The courses, now being run through food banks, housing associations and substance misuse charities to name a few,  equip  families with knowledge and skills to plan and shop for meals and cook from scratch with basic ingredients. All with nutritionally balanced recipes that are good for their health as well as their wallet.

These families are now

  • planning meals ahead
  • freezing foods (e.g. cheese, milk, bread) to make the most of bulk buys
  • measuring food out before cooking to reduce food waste
  • buying less processed food and batch cooking and freezing instead
  • making the best use of leftovers.

These strategies are helping people to make best use of nutrient rich foods to put together balanced meals that are both affordable and value for money.

Here are some of their favourite tried and tested recipes that they said really work:

  • Mini Pancakes – quick, easy and cheap to make – a great way to use up any leftovers in the fridge and can even be made using long life or powdered milk
  • Fruity Yoghurt Cups – can be made with fresh, frozen or canned fruits
  • Tasty Tomato Pasta- a basic sauce that can be easily adapted to use whatever’s available – try adding canned beans or pulses, frozen vegetables or leftover cooked chicken.

We know that when children eat better, they do better. So as families find their food budgets tightening, it’s more important than ever that they are equipped with the cooking skills and knowledge they need to make healthy meals from scratch.

Jayne Hoyle is the Children’s Food Trust Evaluations Officer and a Registered Dietitian. For tips on cooking healthily on a budget visit Let’s Get Cooking at Home website.