Focus: Obese. Hyperactive. How can we eat our way out of trouble?

Why has a nation obsessed by diet let its children fall victims to an 'obesity epidemic'? The Government mutters advice but why doesn't it stop junk food being targeted at the very young? Food writer Joanna Blythman discovers the answers - and how we can get our children (and ourselves) out of this sorry, sticky mess
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

It happens every day, everywhere. Children arrive home from school hungry and obstreperous, revved up on sugar and dehydrated after a day at a school where water must be slurped from a tap in the toilets, or purchased and costs more than a can of cola; where cafeteria meals have ingredients of dubious quality and are often inedible; and where lunch-boxes are routinely based around a sweet drink and the food industry's latest inventive take on "hand-held snacks for kids". Then it's a post-school slump in front of the television where the England football squad and Gary Lineker can be relied on to work their old persuasive black magic (to sell Pringles and Walkers crisps).

It happens every day, everywhere. Children arrive home from school hungry and obstreperous, revved up on sugar and dehydrated after a day at a school where water must be slurped from a tap in the toilets, or purchased and costs more than a can of cola; where cafeteria meals have ingredients of dubious quality and are often inedible; and where lunch-boxes are routinely based around a sweet drink and the food industry's latest inventive take on "hand-held snacks for kids". Then it's a post-school slump in front of the television where the England football squad and Gary Lineker can be relied on to work their old persuasive black magic (to sell Pringles and Walkers crisps).

Last week the Commons health committee warned that children were in the grip of an "obesity epidemic" that could mean early deaths and amputations. Researchers at Southampton University confirmed that food additives are causing behavioural problems. And it emerged that Nestlé and McDonald's were aiming promotional campaigns at youngsters in schools and hospitals.

Early this year, the children's food company Organix conducted extensive research into what our offspring eat, revealing a snacking culture of previously unthinkable dimensions. "We found that children as young as four are spending up to £30 a month on snacks and eating up to 80 additives per day," says the founder of the organic baby food firm, Lizzie Vann. The report highlighted the "dirty dozen" most worrying items that routinely turn up in children's food, including mechanically recovered meat, hydrogenated fat, artificial sweeteners, flavour enhancers, preservatives and colours. It is an unsavoury list that makes frustrating reading. The risks to health of these ingredients have been well documented, and yet they still form the basis of a typical child's diet.

The assault begins in the supermarket: shelves brimming, in all their shiny, eye-grabbing splendour, with towering castles of fizzy drinks, flavoured crisps, cartoon-covered sacks of rubbery gums, special "children's" (that means extra sweet and with more additives, yum yum) jellies. And they're cheap.

Aggressive promotion is underwritten by large, often global, food manufacturers with formidable marketing budgets. They are allotted premium sales positions because they can fund attractive "buy one get one free" or "multibuy" offers that help to prop up the perception that supermarkets offer good value. Thanks to an unwholesome alliance between big food retailers, manufacturers and advertisers, aided and abetted by a series of supine governments that have not had the stomach to stand up to the food industry, our children's health has been jeopardised almost beyond belief.

Over the past two decades, parents have been spun the line that they no longer have the time or inclination to feed children from scratch from fresh ingredients and that children naturally need, and so must be given, different food from adults. Hence families loading their trolleys with three distinct categories of food; adults' food, pet food and children's food.

Stubborn parents who stand firm in the face of advertising-fuelled pleas for chewable cheese strings or the latest lunchbox gimmick must steer a lonely path through the aisles. Although it is now exactly 20 years since the publication of Maurice Hanssen's landmark book E is for Additives, Stone Age food chemistry still pops up with regularity in everything from fruit pastilles to household name fizzy drinks. In most supermarkets, these lucrative items now occupy as much space as meat, fish, fruit and vegetables put together. There is a limit to how much you can charge the buying public for a potato, but when you "add value" to it by pulverising it and puffing it up with additives to create an "extruded snack", then the sky is the limit.

Large food retailers increasingly sideline ingredients for scratch cooking in their store layouts. Or they offer an apparent helping hand to the beleaguered parent in the form of special children's lines. Waitrose's Food Explorers, for example, claims to be "good for children". Adverts say "what may sound like kid's junk food is, in fact, healthy food". But parents who thought they understood the basics of healthy eating might be at a loss to understand what was especially nutritious about items in this range such as raspberry ripple flavoured water, toffee caramel balls breakfast cereal or squirtable toffee sauce. A 2003 Food Standards Agency survey found that own-label children's meals at Asda - spaghetti with meatballs, shepherd's pie and macaroni cheese - contained 48 per cent, 46 per cent and 42 per cent respectively of a child's recommended daily salt intake. Meanwhile down the road at Tesco, Friends of the Earth discovered Kids Snack Pack Carrots on sale at 13 times the price of the chain's "Value"' carrots.

Back in the kitchen where they are struggling against what the Health Development Agency last week labelled an "obesogenic" environment, parents are tired of fighting personal responsibility battles and feel totally let down. Many had believed that although the contents of their children's diet seemed counter-intuitive to any notion of healthy eating, there was comfort from the feeling of safety in numbers. Kids' junk is so ubiquitous, the logic ran, that it must be okay because government wouldn't just stand by while evil companies damaged our children's health for profit, would it? Now that the obesity time-bomb has hit the headlines, chronic unease among parents has grown acute. But it's still business as usual with the Government's laissez-faire attitude to children's food. Despite a review of research carried out for the Food Standards Agency which told us what we all knew - that advertising does influence children's food choices - the Government still won't bite the bullet and ban it as other progressive countries have, but falls back instead on gentle exhortations to industry to put its house in order by way of voluntary schemes.

Last week there was another groundhog day when research from Southampton University substantiated the fairly unamazing observation that certain additives cause attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Yet the Government is still in denial on the risks and shows no signs of legislating against even the most pernicious additives in children's foods. And how much longer do we need to discuss the removal of the much-loathed vending machines from schools before the Government is shamed into action?

In the meantime - and it could be a long time - concerned parents have a choice. They can persist in trying to plot a healthy path through the labyrinthine deceits and dangers of the children's food industry or renounce it by reintegrating children into mainstream eating by cooking straightforward meals for everyone in a household, made from scratch from good ingredients. Grill chicken instead of serving nuggets. Buy good quality steak mince and make your own burgers. Roast nuts in the oven instead of handing out crisps. If the kids don't like it tell them that's all there is. If you don't have junk in the house they can't eat junk. Such an attitude used to sound like an extreme, even reactionary solution. Now it's beginning to look like the only practical one. As the seriousness of our health predicament sinks in, many more parents may begin to see it as a liberating alternative.

Joanna Blythman is author of 'Shopped - The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets' (Fourth Estate)

From sleepless nights to delusions: one child's reaction to chemicals in her food

The effects

Debbie Hill is as pleasant an 18-year-old as a parent could hope for. But as a child dogged with food allergies and intolerances triggered by additives in typical children's foods she was, her mother Janice says, a monster.

Janice - who runs Toxic Overload, an advocacy service for parents of children with learning and behavioural problems - and her husband Alexander first noticed that Debbie was reacting frighteningly to certain chemicals at the age of 18 months.

"She was constantly on the go and wouldn't settle down at night. She'd eventually fall asleep at 2am then wake up at 4pm. We began to realise that she was reacting to colourings, flavourings and preservatives in baby drinks and children's medicines. Calpol was a no-no as were antibiotics. Within 20 minutes, she would be climbing the walls."

As Debbie grew older, the reactions became even more dramatic; one Smartie, one Wotsit, a sip of blackcurrant drink or cola could set her off. She had no sense of personal danger and when two and a half, she threw herself over the stairwell, convinced that she could fly. Incredibly, she wasn't seriously injured, but the hospital decided to keep her in overnight for observation. "We were thinking, great, at least one night when we might get some sleep," says Janice. "Then we got a phone call from the nurses at 1am saying they couldn't cope and we'd have to come in. She had been given an orange squash containing the preservative sodium benzoate."

The family GP in Edinburgh dismissed Janice as a neurotic mother. The strain was so intense, she and her husband almost divorced. "At first Debbie's behaviour were attributed to the Terrible Twos, then it became the Terrible Threes, Fours and Fives." The doctor remarked that it had become fashionableto have a child with allergies and eventually suggested putting Debbie on Ritalin - the controversial class-B drug, nicknamed "the chemical cosh".

Nowadays, Debbie manages her diet carefully and feels happy and well, but it took a long process of elimination to get there. "We couldn't send her to school until the age of six because it wouldn't have been fair to expect the teachers to cope with her. Sometimes she couldn't hear properly or understand what the teacher was saying. It wasn't until Debbie was nine that we figured out how to avoid reactions. By scrutinising labels and keeping a food diary, we worked out that yellow colourings like tartarazine, for example, triggered a zinc deficiency. But to find solutions we had to stumble around in the dark on our own and were forced into the private sector for help. It was a long, complicated process involving lots of tests. I never thought we would get to where we are now."

WHAT TO SWAP

Instead of...

Chicken nuggets

Cheese dippers

Sausage rolls

Fish fingers

Fizzy drinks

Chocolate buttons

Factory biscuits

Coloured chewy sweets

Try...

Chicken breast dipped in flour egg and breadcrumbs and fried

Rice crackers or toasted pitta bread soldiers with carrot/cucumber sticks and guacamole or hummus

Good quality meaty sausages on sticks

Fish fillets cut into goujons dipped and fried like the chicken

Fruit juice mixed with fizzy water

A few squares from a good quality chocolate bar eg Green and Black

Homemade cakes (eg carrot cake, banana bread)

100 per cent real fruit leathers - preferably organic or fruit salad

Comments