Sugar & Salt

The Lowdown on Artificial Sweeteners

Are artificial sweeteners really safe for kids?

It has been drummed into our heads that sugar is the devil, sure to mould our kids into hyper-active little monsters with weakened immune systems, rotten teeth and short attention spans. It seems only logical to avoid anything with sugar and to go for sweet tasting, ‘healthier’ substitutes instead.

What has been the cause for much debate is that when unnatural and processed sugar replacements are consumed in bulk, they may pose more of a health risk to growing little people.

According to a recent study published by the Journal of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, consumption of artificial sweeteners in children is up by 200%. This can largely be attributed to the increasing number of food and drink choices containing artificial sweeteners and the amount of artificially sweetened products being bought and consumed in homes.

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has approved six artificial sweeteners for consumption. These include; aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame-k, saccharin, neotame and advantame. The FDA has also approved the consumption of the natural sweeteners in the form of stevia, xylitol and erythritol*

*Note that while these can technically be regarded as natural in source, they are generally manufactured using chemical processes or from GMO containing sources.

(For more on the differences between the approved artifical sweeteners, you can have a look here.)

Too much of a ‘good’ thing?

Beyond sugar-free fizzy drinks, artificial sweeteners can be found in most ‘diet’, ‘low calorie’ and ‘light’ products from sweets and chocolates, to yoghurts, cordials, puddings, ice-cream, spreads, cereals, protein powders, milk powders, snack bars, sauces and salad dressings (however research shows that both adults and children are more likely to consume the bulk of artificial sweeteners through fizzy drinks).

For each of the approved sweeteners, the FDA has set acceptable daily intake levels (ADI’s), where the amounts have been based on safe levels per kilogram of body weight. The good news is that the ADI’s that have been set are, in fact, 100 times lower than levels that can cause toxicity (to shed some light here, an adult would need to consume anywhere from 6-30 cans of a diet fizzy drink daily or between 9-5000 sweetener sachets daily to reach the ADI). Important to keep in mind is that children will naturally have a lower tolerance than adults based on kilogram per body weight.

For more on ADI’s and levels of toxicity for the different artificial sweeteners you can read more here. 

The American Association of Dietetics has stated that it is safe for children to consume a small amount of artificial sweeteners, as long as they stay within the ADI’s according to their weight and are eating a whole and balanced diet. 

According to the ADI’s, a 15-kilogram toddler could consume just under 4 cans of diet fizzy drinks or 21 sachets of sweetener containing aspartame, daily. This seems like a pretty high amount of aspartame for a child, which begs the question: are ADI’s enough to go by?

Even though artificial sweeteners have been approved for consumption and more recent studies have not shown any cause for concern, further studies will need to be done to determine the long-term effects on children.

Making smart & healthy choices

While artificial sweeteners have a role to play in the lives of children with diabetes, growing children require a certain number of calories daily to sustain their growing and developmental needs. By opting for zero and low-calorie food and beverage choices, you may be depriving your child of their necessary daily energy intake. Parents need to understand that artificially sweetened products are highly processed, generally contain a lot of other added nasties and fail to contain adequate nutrition for children.

Artificial sweeteners can lead to intestinal problems such as bloating or gas, especially in immature digestive systems, so best to keep an eye on how your little one reacts to food or drinks that have any added artificial sweeteners. In the case of putting your little one on a diet including restricted calorie foods, always be sure to consult with your health care provider before doing so.

Although only small amounts of artificial sweeteners are needed to create a level of sweetness that is equivalent to sugar (they can be anywhere up to 20 000 times sweeter than sugar), experts caution that artificial sweeteners can lead to children developing a taste preference for very sweet foods and drinks. If children are being given the option of drinking sweet diet fizzy drinks, they are hardly going to opt for water or milk when given the choice.

Parents need to remember that healthy eating habits start in the home. If artificially sweetened products dominate your kitchen cupboards, your child will grow up in an environment where choosing processed foods and drinks is the norm. If you want your child to opt for natural and whole choices, parents should aim to set the example with their own eating habits.

Sweet alternatives

While small amounts of artificial sweeteners may be safe, opt for natural sweetness wherever possible. Consider raw honey**, unprocessed maple syrup, unsweetened fruit purees and jams, coconut sugar, raw sugar and dates in place of refined sugar. Although natural, it is important not to overdo any of these as some easily contain the same number of calories as sugar. Keep in mind that added sugars (including natural alternatives) should be limited to six teaspoons daily for children. 

When considering natural sweeteners approved by the FDA, opt for non GMO xylitol and natural stevia (be sure to check packaging to look out for any added nasties) and use them sparingly.

 My two cents…

Everything in moderation.

Be the one to determine whether your little one needs some quality extra nutrients and whether they are consuming too many unnatural products in their diet. Strive for a diet rich in variety that is as whole and natural as possible, and you won’t need to lose sleep at night worrying about the small amount of sweetener your child may have consumed that day.

**Honey should never be given to children under the age of one due to the risk of infant botulism.

The above information should never replace the advice of your GP, Paed or Nurse.

Nutrition 101, Sugar & Salt

Top 10 Tips To Keep Your Child’s Sugar Intake Within The Daily Limit

In my last post, I had a look at the recommended daily intake of added sugar, and just how easy it is to consume the 6 teaspoon limit (especially if you have a doting granny that loves nothing more than to bring out the sweet stuff at every opportunity!).

So, apart from the obvious offendors, what can you do to ensure your child’s diet isn’t loaded with unnecessary added sugars and that you stay within the suggested range?

Here are my top tips:

  1. Add in whole fruit/veg for sweetness in recipes: substitute applesauce and banana for sugar in baking for a deliciously natural sweetness. Butternut, pumpkin and sweet potatoes are naturally sweet options that can be added to a number of recipes (and in some instances delicious in baking too! Check out my recipe for pumpkin & coconut pancakes).
  2. Get creative with healthy treats: although human beings are naturally drawn to sweet tastes, your child’s habits are a direct reflection of your own choices. Get them used eating sweet creations that are as natural as possible, without being sickly sweet.  Make your own ‘ice cream’ by throwing a frozen banana and some cocoa powder into a blender or freeze non-sweetened Greek yoghurt with fruit puree to create delicious frozen lollies.
  3. Ensure your child is getting plenty of fibre: fibre is essential for little bodies to metabolise the calories found in sugar. Opt for fibre packed foods such as whole fruit, veg or whole grains for general healthy functioning, and especially if your child has had a sugary meal or snack.
  4. Say yes to healthy snacking: instead of loading your pantry with mini biscuits and other sugary snacks, keep a supply of good-for-you nibbles on hand. Some suggestions include; dried wors, rice crackers, organic rice puffs, cheese, unsweetened yoghurt and dried fruit (all without the added sugar of course!).
  5. Don’t overdo the honey: although we believe that honey is so much better than sugar, it has the same amount of calories per teaspoon as sugar and is regarded as ‘added sugar’. It therefore is included in the 6 teaspoon daily allowance and should be used sparingly (once your child is 1 year and older).
  6. Add some flavour: use delicious ‘sweet’ spices like vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg instead of overloading with sugar, honey or agave.
  7. Dilute fruit juice: not only has fruit juice been linked to tooth decay in growing little people, but one cup easily adds up to more than the recommended daily sugar intake. Always dilute every serving of juice with three parts water (ratio of 1:3). Better than that, get your child used to drinking water. It can only set them up for healthy habits later on in life.
  8. Cook and bake more often: home-made is always better than convenience, packaged or restaurant meals that tend to add an unnecessary amount of sugar (and other processed ingredients) into meals.
  9. Introduce the notion of special occasions: if your child learns that certain foods and treats are only for special occasions like birthdays and specific family gatherings, they will be less likely to expect these items every day.
  10. Get to understand food labels: the scary truth is that many of the baby and toddler foods found on the shelves of your grocery store contain more sugar than you would believe. Even though claims on packaging may boast only the best, and the most natural and organic ingredients for your child, it does not mean that the said item is not crammed with sugar. Always read the ingredients. Other common names of sugar you should keep a watch-out for include; high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, sucrose, glucose, dextrose, cane juice, malt, molasses, lactose, honey, ethyl maltol and maltodextrin.

Remember to not drive yourself crazy about this all. The thing you don’t want to become is the paranoid parent who won’t allow their child within a five foot radius of the kiddies’ table at a birthday party. You also don’t want to make a big deal about sugar (or any food for that matter) because your child will pick up on your paranoia and may become even more intruiged by these forbidden treats.

Every now and then, a sweet treat or two won’t harm your child. In fact it will teach them about the concept of balance and self-control. Two fundamental principles in ensuring a healthy and happy relationship with food later on in life.

*The above should not replace the advice of your GP, paed or nurse.

Nutrition 101, Sugar & Salt

The ‘S’ Word: How much sugar is ‘too much’?

Other mommies make the assumption that not so much as a granule of sugar has touched my son’s lips because I happen to have a blog devoted to healthy eating for kids. I get asked, in all earnest, if I have ever actually given my son sugar. If you’re wondering, then the short answer to that questions is “Um..YES”.

We go to birthday parties, family get-togethers and outings, and sometimes it is just downright unavoidable. I’m a realist when it comes to my child and healthy eating: I know that there will be times where a home-cooked meal, sans salt or sugar, isn’t on-hand and compromises need to be made. We are living in a modern society after all, where parents are more time-strapped than ever before, and you need to make choices that best work for your family and your lifestyle.

So, what exactly is ‘too much’ sugar? The American Heart Association (AHA) has recently confirmed that children between the ages of 2-18 should receive no more than 6 teaspoons a day. The World Health Organisation recommends that no more than 5% of your child’s daily calories come from sugar. Note that this is in relation to added sugars (not sugars naturally occurring in foods) and includes; table sugar, fructose, syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, nectar, fruit concentrate, crystalline, molasses, agave, honey, coconut sugar (and pretty much any other type of calorific sweetener that can be added to food and drinks).

6 teaspoons sounds like quite a substantial amount of sugar to get through, right? To put this into perspective, the below is a list of just some of the household favourites we find in our kitchens (over and above the obvious baddies like sweets, fizzy drinks and chocolate):

  • Tinned fruit in syrup can contain up to 18g of sugar (around 4.5 teaspoons of sugar) per small serving cup.
  • Apple sauce and other sweetened baby food can contain anywhere up to 20g sugar (5 teaspoons) per small serving cup/jar.
  • Sweetened yoghurt, drinking yoghurt and flavoured milks can contain around 20g sugar (5 teaspoons) per cup.
  • Custard and other pudding cups for babies and toddlers can contain anywhere up to 20g of sugar (5 teaspoons) per serving.
  • Prepared muffins or premixed muffin mixtures can contain anywhere up to 32g (8 teaspoons) of sugar per serving.
  • Granola and cereal bars can contain more than 20g (5 teaspoons) of sugar per bar.
  • Sugary cereals can contain more than 12g of sugar (3 teaspoons) per serving, with ‘healthier’ cereal options not doing any better (don’t be fooled by high-fibre, wheat or heart-healthy options).
  • Instant and flavoured porridges and oats can include anywhere from 12g (3 teaspoons) of sugar per serving pouch.
  • Bottled sauces can contain anywhere from 12g sugar (3 teaspoons) per half a cup serving.
  • Tomato sauce and BBQ sauce contains anywhere around 7g (1.5-2 teaspoons) of sugar per tablespoon.
  • A small glass of fruit juice containing fruit concentrate contains the equivalent of up to 36g (9 teaspoons) sugar.
  •  Fruit jam can contain anywhere from 6g sugar (1.5 teaspoons) per tablespoon.

Ok, so we know sugar is pretty much in all the types of foods we find in most households but what is so bad about it? A diet high in sugar has been linked to a host of nasties that we would all rather avoid: flu symptoms, a weakened immune system, concentration problems, acid reflux resulting from increased acidity, tooth decay, and then the bigger issues like obesity, high blood pressure and Type 2 Diabetes later in life.

So how can you ensure your child is not consuming in excess of the recommended 6 teaspoons daily? Provided your child is eating a wholesome balanced diet, made-up primarily of whole and unprocessed foods, then this goal should be easy to achieve. Striving for a whole diet means including a variety of fruit, vegetables, grains, fish, poultry, low-fat dairy and lean cuts of meat (for children younger than 2 years, you want to choose higher fat dairy and meat options to sustain their developmental needs).

According to lead author Hayley Syrad of UCL’s Health and Behaviour Centre, dietary preferences and habits are established in the first two years of life. For this reason it is best to opt for whole foods wherever possible in the early days of your child’s development and then to continue these good habits thereafter.

My two cents? Ultimately you should try and opt for homemade and unprocessed meals where possible, and for healthier choices when eating in restaurants and when buying ready-made foods. Although we are all human and need to live a little, there is a fine line between what is deemed ‘the unavoidable’ by parents and taking the time to plan ahead to make smarter and healthier choices for your little ones.

*The above information should never replace the advice of your GP, paed or nurse.

Sugar & Salt

The Lowdown on Salt

Just how much salt should children be getting in their diets?

It has been drummed into us that salt is one of the leading known dietary causes of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, but do we really understand how much we should be adding into the meals we lovingly prepare for our families?  And when it comes to making healthier choices do we need to avoid it at all costs?

The truth is that babies and toddlers actually don’t need any salt to be added to their food. Adding salt is an acquired (and pretty bad) habit that your little munchkin simply doesn’t need to be taught. Their little palates are undeveloped and they are able to get their daily salt requirements through breast milk, formula and by eating a balanced diet.

A 2012 study published by the National Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, showed that higher sodium intake in children is directly linked to high blood pressure in childhood, which in turn leads to high blood pressure in adulthood. Higher salt intake in young children has therefore been associated with early onset of cardiovascular disease and has been found to increase the risk of premature death. Starting your baby on a road to healthy eating habits could very well prevent health issues later on in their life.

Remember that little kidneys are only able to tolerate tiny amounts of salt at a time. The NHS has stipulated salt guidelines for babies and children as follows:

  • 0-12 months: no more than 1g salt daily (0.4g sodium)
  • 1-3 years: no more than 2g salt daily (0.8g sodium)
  • 4-6 years: no more than 3g salt daily (1.2g sodium)

To put this into perpsective you need to have a general understanding of food labels: general rule of thumb is that foods containing more than 1.5g salt or 0.6g sodium per 100g are considered to be high in salt. Low salt foods contain less than 0.3g salt or 0.1g sodium per 100g. It’s therefore pretty darn easy to exceed the daily salt requirement if enough high-salt foods are consumed in one day.

Although we hate to admit it, its only a matter of time before our children discover all the wonders of junk food (from the school tuckshop, at a friend’s house or hidden in dad’s secret stash). So for now, while you still have some control over what goes into their mouths, make a concerted effort to give your baby or toddler the best while their little systems develop.

When adding salt to food is something that tends to be done on autopilot, going out of your way to avoid salty food for your little one seems like hard work. It really isn’t.

Here are my top tips to avoid overloading your tiny person’s diet with salt:

Learning to Pinpoint Hidden Salt in Foods

By becoming aware of food labels and knowing which ‘culprit foods’ to watch out for, you will be able to make smarter grocery shopping decisions for the household.

These culrpits are generally foods that haven’t been specifically formulated for babies and toddlers including; cereals, some tinned foods, condiments and sauces, soup and gravy powders, biscuits and crackers, seasoning mixes, deli meats, microwave meals, processed cheeses and pies.

Commercial baby foods including jars and cereals have been specifically created with a low salt content so that they are safely tolerated by little bodies. Having said that, some toddler foods are, in fact, high-salt culprits: in a 2015 study  it was found that an overwhelming number of pre-packaged toddler meals and snacks were way too high in sodium and sugar.

So my advice would be to check food and drink labels no matter what you are made to believe by pretty packaging and health claims.

Say “Yes!” to Healthy Snacking

When it comes to snacks, steer away from anything with a notorious high salt content such as crisps, crackers, salted popcorn and pretzels (use your common sense!). Although biltong is a fantastic protein snack for little people, it is generally loaded with salt and should therefore be given in moderation.

Instead go for options like cut up fresh fruit, soft cubes of cooked vegetables (to prevent choking), yoghurt, rice cakes and cheese (be sure to opt for low-sodium varieties). Sugar-free nut butters, hummus and cream cheese make tasty and excellent spreads or dippers to accompany other snacks. Again keep checking food labels – even for the items you think are low in salt!

By making homemade snacks you are able to make sure that no uneccessary salt (or any other harmful addditives for that matter) have been added to your baby or toddler’s food. Remember that the more processed and the less natural, the more likely that salt and other presevatives are lurking inside seemingly harmless snacks.

Go for Foods High in Potassium

Potassium is essential in the metabolisation of salt, and it is therefore a good idea to opt for foods that are crammed with potassium when it comes to feeding your little one. High potassium foods include; bananas, mushrooms, yoghurt, avocados, beans, dark leafy vegetables and fish. If your baby or toddler is getting a balanced diet, there isn’t any need to overdo the high potassium foods – they’ll be getting enough in any event.

Get Creative With Flavour

Recipes that call for salt are generally OK for little people: if you take into account that 1tsp salt has been added to an entire recipe, the amount of salt your little one is actually getting is minimal. Having said that, avoid adding any salt as a seasoner to their food, where your baba is likley to be getting a whole lot more salt with each bite.

Instead of relying on salt to add flavour, make use of herbs and spices to keep things adventurous; cooked garlic and onion, cumin, coriander, oregano, basil, thyme, nutmeg, cinnamon, mild curry powder and even a pinch of pepper are all tasty and safe choices (avoid anything too spicy).

By getting into the habit of adding flavour to meals in creative ways other than by using salt, understanding the basics around food labels to make informed decisions and by removing salt from the supper table, you’ll lay the foundations for healthy eating habits for the entire family from the onset.

*The above advice should never replace the advice of your paediatrician, GP or nurse.