The reality of feeding one's kids these days is that it's a tricky course navigating between shrinking grocery budgets, trying to provide healthy food options, and tiptoeing around the nutritional landmines that are typically part of the kid food world.
While I am quite interested in good health and nutrition, am an avid food label reader, and was raised in a house that was devoid of things with crumply wrappers, soda, and "fake food" as my Mom would call it, my kids have tried some of the more nutritionally questionable items available to children today. Do I make those items the basis of their diet? Absolutely not. Do I feel I could always be doing a better job of improving their what's available to them? Most definitely.
There are reams of evidence and studies showing the detrimental effects of many of the sweeteners and food additives in kids' food today: high fructose corn syrup; monosodium glutamate; artificial food dyes, colors and flavorings; BHT (a controversial food preservative found in innumerable products), to name a few. Some say high fructose corn syrup, HFCS, has contributed to the epidemic of childhood obesity. Some of these other additives have been labeled toxic and possibly carcinogenic, and some think that certain additives may exacerbate symptoms of conditions like ADHD. As a long time subscriber to health newsletters and owner of far too many books on health and nutrition, I can say that I've read enough to personally believe that the assertions are true.
Anecdotally, I can attest to observing behavioral changes in children when they consume food sweetened with HFCS or snacks with artificial food dyes in them. What's really troubling is how misleading many of the products are. When recently I switched to what I believed was a "healthier" alternative to potato chips (how bad could a snack be that comes in a compostable bag?), I was shocked to find the cheese variety I had recently purchased contained an artificial orange food dye. This is a product that goes to great lengths to advertise itself as "natural." I was more than disturbed this summer when I discovered I had been giving my kids water that turned out to be sweetened with a fake sweetener! Nowhere on the box of water pouches did it indicate that the product was artificially sweetened – except on the "ingredient" list, which I eventually discovered. Who checks the ingredient list of water?
I have taken to calling the major food companies and offering my consumer feedback to get them to do the right thing. The nice thing is that most companies are very receptive to your input. If enough parents call these companies, they will make changes. These companies are not motivated by altruistic impulses; they simply want your business. If they think that they could increase their business by a certain number of percentage points through altering some of their ingredients, they will do it. I have also found that you will be sent between $10 and $20 worth of coupons for future product purchases (and a nice letter) as a result of your feedback. Not too bad for a few minutes of your time.
There are signs that the tides are turning. I'm encouraged to see that some of the products I used to shun are slowly changing their ingredient lists. A leading maker of granola bars and popular breakfast cereals is no longer adding HFCS to its products. An extremely popular kids' yogurt brand has just re-launched itself without HFCS and "no artificial colors and flavors." A popular cheese flavored snack now no longer includes MSG on its ingredient list, and is even offering a whole grain version of the product. Two of the leading soup brands proudly tout that they no longer add MSG. One of the top selling breakfast syrups has removed HFCS and proudly proclaims as much on its label, and many leading applesauce brands now offer "natural" varieties that do not sweeten with HFCS and are free of "artificial flavors and colors."
In response, seemingly, to the rising tide of bad press against HFCS, the Corn Refiner's Association's has been running a print and TV ad campaign touting HFCS' perfectly healthy place in a balanced diet. You know it's bad when a national ad campaign is mounted to defend a product. Perhaps all of the bad press HFCS has received in recent years has struck a nerve? I noticed recently that even good old Corn Pops has not only stopped adding HFCS, but is now touting its fiber content across the front of the box in large letters. Quelle surprise! When a cereal with the word "corn" in it wants nothing to do with high fructose corn syrup, you know the sweetener is in trouble.
If parents can band together and start demanding that these food manufacturers start taking the artificial ingredients and preservatives out of the food, our children are the ultimate beneficiaries. Not everyone is aware of the impact these ingredients have on their children's bodies. To be fair, not every child responds the same way to different foods and ingredients in the same way. However, even if your child does not seem outwardly effected, you would probably agree that it wouldn't hurt to get the food manufacturers to start offering healthier versions of their food.
That said, a whole grain birthday cake with dye-free frosting is going to be a cake with a lot of leftovers. Goody bags stocked with dried seaweed, raw nuts, and celery will only ensure utter mortification in your child. I don't think birthday parties and holiday occasions are necessarily the place to put your foot down: it's the day-to-day sustenance that I'm trying to focus on, but it is a battle. The carrot and celery industry simply do not have the advertising and marketing clout of the leading manufacturers of children's packaged snacks.
For most parents, their children's health is a top priority. I think by educating ourselves, and subsequently fomenting change at the food production level, we can, in our small way, get the country, nutritionally, back on track. The reality is in the not too distant past, our grandparents were eating whole food made from real ingredients. I would like to think that one day my children's children would have not the slightest idea what HFCS and BHT are. Food should come from the earth, not a lab.