Parents lose battle with the greens

Researchers say children are exposed to cancer risk because vegetables are being left out of their diet
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Christmas dinner is now the one meal a year where many British children get an adequate intake of vegetables, according to new research carried out for the Cancer Research Campaign.

Experts are alarmed that a new generation of children are being exposed to a greater risk of cancer because they are bullying their mothers into letting them eat what they want.

Many mothers have simply given up the battle of trying to feed their children vegetables - particularly frozen vegetables which, if frozen when very fresh, can be most effective in combating cancer because they retain the most nutrients.

The 72-page report, written by Strathclyde University and seen by The Independent, is a damning indictment of the Government's campaigns to promote healthy eating. It criticises schools for allowing pupils as young as five to choose their own junk food from school menus while parents permit children to exist on diets of jam sandwiches and crisps.

The worrying findings will be released today by Professor Gordon McVie, director-general of the Cancer Research Campaign, who described them as "very depressing" and said that they could point the way to even greater rates of bowel and breast cancer in Britain.

"We know from epidemiological studies that you can cut down the incidence of colon cancer by a third if you have a diet which is rich enough in vegetables and fresh fruit," Professor McVie said. He said that radical measures should be looked at, including the marketing of vegetables with potato crisp-style flavourings.

The research team at Strathclyde University was headed by Professor Gerard Hastings. He said that today's young children were increasingly headstrong in their eating habits.

"Mealtimes are turning into a battleground where food is the weapon," he said. "This is one of the few areas of children's lives where they know they have control because they have the power not to eat."

The qualitative study was based on lengthy interviews with working-class mothers in the south-east and north- east of England and the west of Scotland.

One mother from the north-east, interviewed by the research team, said: "In my house they can have anything. As long as they've eaten they can have what they want, when they want."

The mother of an under-five from the South-east said: "That's what she has - jam sandwiches, or sometimes a little bit of cheese. That's all she'll eat. And Hula Hoops."

Some of those mothers who were still feeding children vegetables were having to go to bizarre lengths to disguise the food. One mother in the North-east said that she covered her children's vegetables in yoghurt. Others gave their families vitamin pills to replace the missing vegetables.

The favourite foods for three- to five-year-olds were cereals, tinned spaghetti, chicken, crisps, sweets and yoghurt.

The research team found that "many respondents had simply given up forcing the issue of vegetable consumption because they disliked the stress". Many mothers were especially reluctant to buy frozen vegetables, which were regarded as more expensive than fresh and too high in water content.

"If I give my son frozen vegetables, he wouldn't eat them," said one respondent. "If it's frozen he'll whinge."

Such a response will have been disappointing to Malcolm Walker, chairman of Iceland Frozen Foods which funded the research with the Cancer Research Campaign. He said: "It's prejudice. The quality of frozen food is nothing to do with the fact that it's frozen, it's what the retailer freezes in the first place. Fresh green beans that are three days old have only got 50 per cent of their vitamin C content, whereas frozen beans have no measurable loss of vitamin C."

Experts believe that five portions of vegetables should be eaten every day, a level which the new report found was given to most children only on Christmas Day. The researchers found that in two areas, north-east England and western Scotland, "school dinners were nutritionally poor and allowed children too much choice".

Martine Stead, one of the researchers, said: "Because of the cafeteria style restaurants children were coming out with chocolate pudding and two bags of crisps. There was no guidance to the children on a balance of foods and mothers felt very angry."

One Scottish mother said of her child: "Fiona comes home and she'll say she had a roll and a packet of crisps. They're letting her pick and she's only five years old."

Dr Juliet Gray, a freelance nutritionalist, said mothers were being intimidated into letting children eat what they wanted. "Through the generations children have always been picky about eating but what has happened in society is that we have lost a bit of parent power," she said.