By Sarah Armstrong, MD
Sara Armstrong, MD is the Director of the Healthy Lifestyles Program at Duke University. The program focuses on empowering kids and families with the skills and knowledge needed to live a life of healthy eating and active lifestyles.
I was recently talking with another mom as our two preschoolers were throwing rocks into a creek in Duke Forest. Her child, happy and healthy and smiling, took a break from the hard work of play and asked her mom, “I’m thirsty. May I please have a Fruitable?” I turned to her mom, “Fruitable?” I asked. She explained to me that it was a new juice box that was 50% fruit, 50% vegetable, and provided ½ serving of fruit and ½ serving of vegetable in every juice box. “That’s probably why it costs three times as much as a normal juice box!” she laughed. This is a good mom; she is willing to spend the extra money to make sure her child has the most nutritious option.
But is it?
Advertisers – marketing geniuses – know that we want our kids to be healthy. They recognize that there is an obesity epidemic going on among our children, and that parents are willing to pay more (as they are able) to provide their children with the best. But food marketers also know the truth about parenting. Sometimes children refuse food that tastes “healthy.” And some children even PREFER foods that are sweet, salty, or fried. And some of these children can pitch a pretty impressive fit when they do not get what they want. If you are a parent and do not know what I am talking about, then stop reading now and go write a book, then send it to me, please.
We parents want to give our kids healthy food. We want our kids to like it. Or at least eat it. Quietly. So when the food industry presents us with options to satisfy both, we’re bound to pull out our wallets. So we have food packaging yelling to us from the shelves, “Garden veggie goldfish crackers! Provides ½ serving of vegetables with each handful!” Or, “fruit juice that provides omega-3 fatty acids!” Since when were we supposed to get VEGETABLES from a CRACKER? And worse, FISH OIL from APPLE JUICE? As my nine-year old would say, “now, that ain’t right.”
And don’t get me started on breakfast cereal box advertising. The cereal aisle in most grocery stores is a virtual wonderland of ads aimed directly at 3-year-olds, who are expected to drive their parents’ purchase-power by the volume of their whine-power.
So, I now can say to that anonymous good mom – and all good moms and dads trying their best to sort it all out among the noisy advertisements – here are 5 nutrition rules to live by (credit David Katz’ Nutrition Detectives Program):
1. The longer the ingredient list (and the less you can understand those words), the less healthy it is for your child. Next time you are in the grocery, look at some of the ingredients on and you tell me if you could have identified that “food.”
2. The first ingredient is what the food is mostly made up of. The second ingredient is the second most, and so on.
3. Beware “sneaky foxes.” High fructose corn syrup may now hide under the name “corn syrup.” Same thing. “Partially hydrogenated oil” of any kind means trans-fat – even if the box reports zero trans-fat. If they include 0.5 g or less, they can say “none.” Trans fat was invented in a lab to extend the shelf life of foods. Just think how long it will stick around in blood vessels!
4. Multi-grain does NOT mean the same thing as Whole Grain. They can put in as many types of grain they want, but unless it’s a whole intact grain, it is not going to be very beneficial. If you’re not sure, look at the nutrition label. Two grams or less of fiber means there is a good chance it’s not whole grain.
5. Don’t be fooled by the advertising on the front of the package. Only the nutrition label is regulated, so the rest of the box is a commercial.
Better yet – stick to foods that don’t have a label. I’m pretty sure that an apple is an apple, and a carrot is a carrot. No complex label to read. No commercial to weed through. Choose real food the way nature grew it rather than how a laboratory modified it and you’ll rarely go wrong.