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.
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.
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.”
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.”