24 December 2009
Food additives can be:
- Natural, e.g. the red colouring from bet root juice (E162).
- Nature-identical, i.e. man-made but identical to a naturally ocurring substance such as vanillin (found naturally in vanilla pods).
- Artificial, i.e. man-made but not found in nature, such as saccharin, a sweetener used to replace sugar (E954).
- Antioxidants and vitamins are also added such as E300 ascorbic acid (vitamin C ) and E306-E309 tocopherols (vitamin E).
Some food additives may cause problems in a small percentage of children who are sensitive to them.
Food labels list ingredients in order of decreasing weight. Try to choose foods that are low in sugar, salt and saturated fat. If sugar or saturated fat appear near the top of the list, think again before buying that product. Remember, fresh is best but if you are buying pre-prepared foods you may want to avoid those with large amounts of colourings and artificial flavouring. For babies and children under the age of two, sugar and sodium (found in salt) are the main nutrients to check on food labels.
Fat and fibre
The amount of fat and fibre is not really an issue as children of this age need a more nutrient-dense diet with more fat and less fibre. However, from two years upwards, children should gradually move towards an adult-type diet. When looking at labels, it may be useful to check that the amount of saturates is not a large percentage of the total fat. Saturated fat is generally derived from animal origin so would be found in creamy soups, biscuits and cakes made with butter and full-fat milk. Foods such as crisps contain high levels of salt and fat.
Salt is made up of 40 per cent sodium and 60 per cent chloride. Too much sodium in the adult diet may contribute to high blood pressure, which can increase the risk of a stroke, coronary heart disease and kidney disease. It is therefore a good idea for the whole family to become accustomed to less salt in the diet. Try not to add too much salt while cooking and avoid salt on the table.
Babies under one year should not have any salt added to their food as a baby's kidneys are too immature to cope with added salt All baby foods should be free of added salt. A child's salt consumption should not be more than 3 g (just under 1 teaspoonful) of salt a day. However, most children exceed this figure because foods like pot noodles, sausages and burgers, pizza and snacks like crisps and nuts are all high in salt.
Labels often break carbohydrates into starch and sugars and it is useful to know that 5 g of sugar makes one teaspoon. However, if only carbohydrate is listed, this includes both complex carbohydrates (starches) and simple carbohydrates (sugars). We should be eating more starchy food and less sugary food so giving only a single carbohydrate figure is not much help.
Sugar may come in many disguises such as sucrose, glucose, glucose syrup, maltose, dextrose, fructose, golden syrup, honey and fruit juices. And manufacturers can hide the amount of sugar in a product by using three different types of sugar, e.g. sugar, corn syrup and honey, and by listing each sugar separately. Each appears lower down the list, making it more difficult to judge the total amount of sugar in the product. The term 'No added sugar' can also be misleading, for the product could still contain honey, glucose, corn syrup and concentrated apple juice, which are just as harmful to your child's teeth.
Most soft drinks are packed with sugar. A can of Coke or similar fizzy drink can contain 35-40 g (1 1/4 - 1 1/2 oz) sugar, which is equivalent to about eight teaspoons. Take care when choosing fruit juices as pure unsweetened juices should contain no added sugars except the 15 g (1/2 oz) per litre that manufacturers are allowed. There are some individual cartons of fruit juice on the market that contain 25 a (1 oz) of sugar, which represents more than seven teaspoons of sugar, and even fruit sugars will cause tooth decay. Likewise, watch out for juice drinks, which can contain as little as 5 per cent juice.
Yoghurts and fromage frais are a good source of calcium but some fromage frais can contain as many as four sugar lumps. Despite their healthy image, many yoghurts contain a lot of added sugar, thickeners, colours and flavourings. Similarly, many breakfast cereals designed to appeal to children can contain as much as 50 per cent sugar. It would be much better for your child to start the day with a good old-fashioned cereal like porridge or muesli, even if your child adds honey or a little sugar.
Foods and drinks for babies and young children are not allowed to contain artificial sweeteners. However, these are included in many foods specifically targeted at youngsters including soft drinks, yoghurts and ice lollies 'disguised' as technical jargon. When doing the weekly shop, look carefully at the ingredients of what you are buying and beware if they contain acesulfame k, aspartame, saccharin or sorbitol, these are, in fact, artificial sweeteners.
In some cases, processed foods actually retain more nutrients than the unprocessed form. Perhaps the best example of this is frozen vegetables and fruits, which are picked and frozen within hours of harvest, thus locking in valuable nutrients. Fresh vegetables and fruits may have been stored for long periods before purchase or use and the longer they remain on the shelf or in cold storage the more nutrients they lose. However, research has shown that frozen vegetables and fruits are just as good - if not better - for you as their fresh relations.
Keep a good supply of frozen fruit and vegetables such as frozen peas, spinach, sweetcorn, summer berries and thick-cut oven chips in stock in your deep freeze. They make good standbys, they don't go mouldy, they are quick and easy to prepare and inexpensive.
The process of canning preserves food by heating it to a sufficiently high temperature and replacing the oxygen with inactive gasses and then sealing it in an airtight container to prevent microbial contamination. Most canned foods will keep for one year and they retain many nutrients, including protein and vitamins A and D and riboflavin.
The high temperatures involved in canning tend to destroy vitamin Bl and vitamin C in vegetables and savoury foods. But canned fruit and fruit juices tend to retain most of their vitamins. Most acidic foods retain their vitamin C content so canned tomatoes are still good for you. Be aware that foods canned in brine are high in salt. Fruits canned in syrup are high in sugar, so instead choose fruits canned in natural juice.
Whereas many chilled convenience meals are high in salt and fat, there are quite a number of convenience foods that are good to store in your larder.
Organic baby foods have grown in popularity as people have become increasingly concerned about the effects of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals on children's health. Organic farming is an environmentally friendly option, but it generates higher prices and parents should not feel that a non-organic diet is unhealthy. The risk of not including fruits and vegetables in children's diets are far greater and there is no scientific evidence that pesticide levels in ordinary fruit and vegetables are harmful to babies and young children.
Organic food is grown in soil without the use of artificial fertilisers or pesticides and instead uses traditional crop rotation where possible and makes the most of natural fertilisers. Animals are reared without the routine use of antibiotics, growth hormones or worm injections. The animals reared must also be allowed to live natural, contented lives. However, pesticides have been used for so many years that they may still be present in the soil, water and air, Spray drift of chemicals from neighbouring farms make it impossible to guarantee that organic food is free from pesticide residues.
There is no law - and it is unlikely to occur - to say that organic produce must taste better. If you choose to go organic, you will need to shop at least two or three times a week as there are no chemical preservatives in organic food.
GM foods: are these the new SuperFoods?
There is a great deal of controversy about the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops and foods. Genetically engineering food is a new way of producing foods by taking DNA from one species and inserting it into another. One benefit of this would be that genetic modification could be used to enhance the protein content of rice - the lack of protein is a major cause of illness in many third-world countries.
Unlike conventional breeding, where genes can only be transferred between plants or animals of the same or closely related species, genetic engineering also enables genes to be transferred between different species and potentially even between animals and plants. For example, work is under way to produce plants with an in-built mechanism to fight frost damage. One possibility would involve utilising the genes in fish, which enable them to tolerate extreme cold.
Although GM crops are not grown commercially in Britain, ingredients from GM soya and GM maize crops are on the market. They come from the United States, as does the tomato puree made from GM ingredients. The first genetically modified food organism for use in Britain has been cleared and it is a baker's yeast, which improves the rising of bread dough.
Many people are worried that the long-term effects of eating genetically modified food are as yet unknown and could be harmful to the environment.