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.