It is difficult to discuss the adverse affects of so-called junk foods on the human body, particularly in relation to children, without someone saying “children need some X” or “X is not that bad for you” or “everything in moderation”. Indeed, there is so much junk in convenience foods these days that it becomes difficult, time-consuming and costly to avoid it completely, and most parents will end up feeding their children something on this list at one time or another, some with more regularity than others.
The aim of this page is not to judge or to make parents feel guilty, but rather to inform them with as much detail as possible of the list of foods which have been shown in scientific settings as well as by observational methods to contribute to everything from serious disease to a lack of wellbeing, poor concentration and lowered performance. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.
Refined sugar is devoid of nutrients, has an acidifying effect on the body and the process of absorbing it depletes the human body of many nutrients. Several highly-credible scientists have classified sugar as a poison or a toxin, most recently Dr Robert Lustig, the leading expert in childhood obesity at the University of California. In April 2011 the New York Times published an interesting article on this subject, which you can read here.
Unfortunately, sugar is in a lot of foods and is even hidden in a great number of places you wouldn’t expect it, from tomato pasta sauce to some peanut butters. Organic packaged foods are less likely to contain sugar, perhaps because they do not require added sweetners as much as non-organic versions might. Since sugar doesn’t add anything nutritionally to the diet, has been linked to various diseases – most notably childhood obesity and diabetes – and it is possible to buy foods which taste great without it, it is best to avoid it if possible.
The good news is that companies are starting to get wise to increased consumer demand for no-added sugar products, so if the usual sauce, cereal, juice or other food product you are buying for your family contains sugar, there is likely to be a great tasting alternative – or you can make your own. This doesn’t mean that you can never eat an ice-cream again, but it may be wise to avoid giving your children sugary foods for a number of reasons.
First, the foods children taste in their first few years will have a great effect on their lifelong palates. Avoiding sugar as much as possible may help them to avoid future weight problems and obesity. Secondly, its impact on blood sugar and thus energy levels is great. When eating so-called high-glycaemic load (GI/GL) foods, including sugar and fast carbohydrates such as white bread, cornflakes and chocolate, the body breaks them down rapidly. When the blood sugar increases quickly, the pancreas answers by releasing insulin, thereby causing a rapid drop in blood sugar, which can make you feel tired, grumpy and unable to concentrate.
Contrast this with less processed foods and slow carbohydrates such as Bircher muesli which releases sugar into the bloodstream much more slowly. It is better to eat a food that is low on the GI index, or combine it with a lower GI food (like nuts) to offset this effect.
If you like sugar-added products and feel like you are depriving your children, it may be helpful to remember that your children’s taste buds do not know what sugar is. They will not miss it if you do not give it to them in the first place. Visit our dessert section for tasty treats which do not require added sugar.
Caffeine is a powerful stimulant which can make children edgy, uncomfortable and even hyperactive. Moreover, caffeine and tannins (contained in tea) both interfere with the uptake of other nutrients including iron, calcium and magnesium, which are extremely important for small children’s growing bodies and brains.
It is best to give children herbal tea only until they are 8 or 9, and if they then ask for black tea, to start off very weak. Aside from absorption of nutrients (which can be overcome by drinking tea separately from meals), tannins have been shown to have many health benefits, especially for the immune system. If possible start with green tea, which has many health benefits although it does still contain caffeine.
Whenever possible, give your children fresh, unprocessed foods. If not available, the next best thing is to give them organic packaged foods with no added sugar, additives, colourings, or preservatives. Processed food is a wide term, but it includes some perhaps surprising foods such as breads, yogurts, some dried fruits and all except the raw breakfast cereals (raw oats, raw millet flakes etc.), as well as the more obvious burgers, sweets, biscuits, cakes, crisps and chocolate.
Many breakfast cereals such as Cheerios or Cornflakes contain sugar. A bowl of refined sugar-coated cereal is not the best way for your children to start their (often intensively active) day. See our breakfast section for easy, healthy breakfast ideas your children will love.
Salt is not recommended for babies under the age of one, as it can be damaging to their kidneys and they will get all they need from breast milk or formula. However, many processed foods contain a lot of hidden salt. Here are the foods to watch out for – check the sodium contents!
1. Formula: Be careful to add the correct amount of water, partly because concentrated formula will contain too much salt.
2. Stock cubes (except baby stock): Do not use commercial gravy or stock cubes when cooking for your baby, as these are high in salt.
5. Canned beans
Over the age of 1 year, the recommendation is to limit sodium as follows:
1 to 3 years – 2g salt a day (0.8g sodium)
4 to 6 years – 3g salt a day (1.2g sodium)
7 to 10 years – 5g salt a day (2g sodium)
11 years and over – 6g salt a day (2.4g sodium)
The best drink for your baby or child is plain water. All babies we know love water, but somewhere along the line many are given juice and other sweet drinks, and from that moment they never go back. The worst offenders are soft drinks such as Coca Cola because of the high content of carbon dioxide and phosphoric acid, which can cause problems for developing bones – but even pure fruit juices contain high levels of natural sugars, with almost no fibre to balance it out.
The fructose in fruit juice has the same effect on blood sugar as refined sugar and is also very bad for tooth enamel, so although juices are a good source of Vitamin C, it is always better to offer a small piece of whole fruit (which still contains all the fibre) and a glass of water rather than a fruit juice.
Sweeteners range from artificial sweetners like aspartame to natural “healthy” sweetners such as honey and maple syrup. Aspartame has shown to be a dangerous substance which has reportedly caused tumours in rats and should never be given to children. Honey is touted as a health nectar, however from a blood sugar perspective, honey has the same GI rating as refined sugar. If you do wish to include honey in your child’s diet, bear this in mind and always try to serve it with a lower GI high protein snack such as nuts or oatmeal.
If you need to add sweetness, the best of all is maple syrup, which is produced from the sap of the maple tree and has shown in studies to have a slightly lower impact on blood sugar than honey or refined sugar. However, it is still a sugar and should be used sparingly. We use maple syrup in some of our sweet recipes, but always as little as possible.
Until recently “Agave Nectar” was touted as a wonder sweetener with a low GI, but it has recently had to change its name to Agave Syrup and some health professionals claim that it is as refined as high-fructose corn syrup. We have stopped using it in our recipes for now, but do your research before deciding whether to use it or not.
Many food additives have been shown to be dangerous to human health, especially in babies and children. Additives have been linked to a host of health problems, from asthma to hyperactivity and childhood leukemia and many have now been banned across Europe.
Here are a few to watch out for:
Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite is used as a preservative and a flavoring. It is also used to retain the red color in meat products.
Find it in: bacon, ham, corned beef, hot dogs, sausages, luncheon meats, smoked meats, smoked fish.
Possible side effects: Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite has been linked in studies to certain kinds of cancer, especially once the meat has been subjected to high-temperatures (e.g. barbecueing). It has also been linked to birth defects and childhood leukemia.
Acesulfame Potassium (also known as Acesulfame K)
Acesulfame K is a calorie-free artificial sweetener. It is far sweeter than table sugar and is marketed as DiabetiSweet and Sweet One.
Find it in: chewing gum, baked goods, gelatin desserts.
Possible side effects: In some studies this sweetener caused lung, breast, and thymus gland tumors in rats. It also led to leukemia and chronic respiratory disease. Acesulfame K can cause low blood sugar attacks (reactive hypoglycemia) in humans. This additive has caused controversy as it has not been subjected to extensive testing.
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener. It is sold as NutraSweet and Equal, but it is also added to many foods, particularly those which are marked as “sugar free”, many of which are aimed at children. Many people with diabetes use aspartame instead of refined sugar.
Find it in: sugar-free drinks, chewing gum (almost always), sweets, instant desserts, low-calorie desserts, gelatin, drink mixes, soft drinks, some brands of chewable vitamin supplements.
Possible side effects: headaches, nausea, depression, rashes, seizures, dizziness, blurred vision, insomnia, ringing in the ears, hallucinations. Some studies link it strongly to cancer.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
High Fructose Corn Syrup is a liquid sweetener, which has slowly replaced sugar as a cheaper alternative.
Find it in: bakery items, breakfast cereals, cakes, sweets, cookies, “fruit” drinks, ice cream, jams and preserves, salad dressings, fizzy drinks/sodas, soups, and many other processed foods.
Possible side effects: raised cholesterol, premature aging, obesity, insensitivity of insulin receptors to insulin.
Let’s be clear, desserts do not have to be unhealthy. That is one of the main points of this blog, really. Food can be healthy and tasty and you never need to feel that you are missing out or depriving yourself or your children of good, tasty food and occasional treats – when sweets are made from fruits, nuts and healthy spices, you can even eat treats a little more often! Visit our dessert section to find lots of delicious, healthy, guilt-free desserts.
There is also no harm in the occasional proper ice-cream made the traditional way, that is to say cream, sugar, eggs and a real fruit or vanilla flavour. In Sweden we recommend Gräddglass Gammaldags or Järna Glass.
The main things you should watch out for with desserts are hydrogenated fats/trans fats (bad for the heart and linked to several cancers), food additives, sugar, artificial sweeteners such as high-fructose corn-syrup or added glucose (see above), preservatives, artificial colours and flavourings. Most shop bought desserts, cakes and pastries will contain some, if not all, of the above. Homemade cakes, sweets and desserts can be made leaving them all out completely. We favour our almond and coconut flour recipes for their high protein content and good fats.
1. Peters J, et al ” Processed meats and risk of childhood leukemia (California, USA)” Cancer Causes & Control 5: 195-202, 1994.
2. Sarasua S, Savitz D. ” Cured and broiled meat consumption in relation to childhood cancer: Denver, Colorado (United States),” Cancer Causes & Control 5:141-8, 1994.
3. Bunin GR, et al. “Maternal diet and risk of astrocytic glioma in children: a report from the children’s cancer group (United States and Canada),” Cancer Causes & Control 5:177-87, 1994.
4. Lijinsky W, Epstein, S. “Nitrosamines as environmental carcinogens,” Nature 225 (5227): 2112, 1970.