How to read small-print on food labels

We’re fed so much confusing advertising, but what really constitutes a healthy kids’ snack?

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When you’re rushing through the supermarket with tetchy children, it’s easy to grab anything that looks healthy without studying the contents too closely. But don’t be fooled by the marketing. While the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) should ensure slogans aren’t actually false, terms such as ‘healthy’, ‘traditional’ or ‘full of goodness’ have no legal definition, and are actually worthless.

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Don’t be fooled, either, by pictures of fruit, wheat sheaves or children doing sport. It’s easy to think that you’re buying healthy treats for your little ones, when there are countless hidden health dangers in the small print. Here are some common danger signs, and some great alternatives that you can’t go wrong with.

Snack attack

Most crisps, and even biscuits, contain high levels of salt, which can cause high blood pressure and heart problems in later life. Also, savoury snacks often contain too much saturated fat and trans fats, increasing the risks of high cholesterol levels and heart disease.

Then there’s sugar. The average preschool-age child in the UK already has twice as much as they need everyday. The extra calories contribute to childhood obesity, and mean they’re too full for more nutritious food. Sweets and cakes are obvious problem areas, but it’s less easy to spot sugar hidden in fruit drinks and fruity snacks.

Additives can also be an issue. A survey of 283 children’s snacks by the food company Organix found that 70% contained flavourings and a third had colourings.

Some researchers suggest that there’s a link between colours such as sunset  yellow (E110) and carmoisine (E122) and hyperactivity. Each additive is safety-tested, but there are concerns that eating lots of different ones every day may
lead to a negative ‘cocktail effect’.

Health claims and hidden nasties

Cheese snacks that claim to be rich in calcium

Hidden nasty

Some contain more salt than sea water – up to 2.8%! Some also have extra additives to make them tastier to children.

Alternative

Go for normal Cheddar cheese. It has just as much calcium, but up to 40% less salt.

Fruit drinks and yogurts that claim to be ‘sugar free’ or to have ‘no added sugar’.

Hidden nasty

They often contain artificial sweeteners instead. These are banned from baby foods and anything labelled as suitable for the under-3s, but are allowed in other children’s products, against the advice of some campaigners.

Alternative

Go for fruit smoothies. They’re a good alternative to sugar-laden fizzy drinks and fruit drinks. The best ones are just fruit juice and purée, and they count as one of
the five recommended portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

Sweets that boast they’re made with real fruit juice.

Hidden nasty

They still contain up to 90% sugar, so don’t kid yourself that they’re healthy. Also, watch out for ‘fat-free’ products such as marshmallows, which are three-quarters sugar, plus water, gelatine, starch and additives.

Alternative

Go for real fruit instead. Cut it up and put it in a bowl, so it’s easier for kids to pick at.

Crisps and savoury snacks called ‘lite’ or reduced fat or salt

Hidden nasty

They may still have lots of flavourings, flavour enhancers, artificial sweeteners, colourings etc – read the small print!

Alternative

Go for Organix crisps, which contain only 25% of the salt usually found in crisps, and are packaged in smaller bags.

The small print

The only way to ensure that the good stuff (eg: fruit, milk and vitamins) highlighted on the label isn’t swamped by bad stuff is to read the label carefully. The nutrition information panel and list of ingredients should, between them, reveal hidden fat, sugar, salt and E numbers.

Sugar

If there’s more than 10g per 100g, that’s a lot of sugar.

Fat

More than 20g of fat and 5g of saturated fat per 100g is a lot.

Check how much is in each portion. 1-3 year olds should have no more than 62g per day.

Glucose syrup

This is another form of sugar, as is sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, dextrose, fruit syrup and molasses. Honey and concentrated apple and grape juice, which are also used to add sweetness, are healthier but still damage teeth.

Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil

Products with ‘hydrogenated vegetable oil’ or ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oil’ contain trans fats, which are worse than saturated fats.

Sodium – or salt

Try to have food with less than 1.2g salt per 100g. Sodium should be multiplied by 2.5 to get the salt level. Children aged 1-3 should have no more than 2g of salt per day, and 4-6 year olds no more than 3g. If neither sodium nor salt is shown in the nutrition panel, look for salt in the ingredients.

Flavourings

Additives including flavourings, preservatives, thickeners and emulsifiers are safe for most children. But if it contains lots, the product has probably been over-processed and is unlikely to contain many beneficial nutrients. Buy food with ingredients you recognise.

Mum’s Stories:

“Fruit is always one of their snacks”

“The girls usually get two snacks a day and I try to keep them healthy. One is fruit – banana or grapes etc – and the other, a baby biscuit. They like organic cereal bars and rice cakes and Farley’s bears, too. As they grow, I’ll try to carry on with the fruit. They’ll probably eat normal biscuits, but not as many as me, I hope!”

Julie, 39, mum to twins Sarah and Rachel, 16 months

“She’s always hungry”

“Ricki is always hungry, so she has four or five snacks a day. The others probably have two. They help themselves to fruit. Biscuits are in the cupboard, so they have to ask for them. They get chocolate bars and crisps once or twice a week. No cheese strings – I’ve read they contains lots of salt – but they like Baby Bel cheese. They drink orange squash, water or milk. I only give them stuff that I’d eat or drink myself. It seems better for them.’

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Lucinda, 37, mum to Ricki, 5, Zack, 3, and Freddie, 14 months

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