Safe food choices for kids

Know your food additives to make the safest choices for your kids

When you’re choosing food for your children it can be difficult to know what additives you should let them eat and which you should avoid.

The New Zealand Food Safety Authority allows many common colourings and preservatives into our food, yet health campaigners such as Sue Kedgley of the Green Party say parents need to be aware that more than 4000 additives are added to the processed foods we eat each day.

A child eating a diet comprised mostly of processed food could be consuming more than 100 different additives every day, and it’s impossible to know what effect this cocktail is having. We’ve all noticed the way some kids get overexcited and on a “sugar rush” after a birthday party.

But is this just caused by sugar? or could the artificial preservatives and additives found in traditional Kiwi party food, such as cocktail sausages, lollies and soft drinks, be having an effect?

If you’re concerned about what additives you are feeding your children, here are some tips on what to look out for on the labels. No-one is suggesting you charge around the supermarket with a list in your hand, but do take some time to look at the labels of the foods you commonly have in your pantry and put in your child’s lunchbox – you may be surprised at what you discover!

PreservativesSulphur dioxide and sulphites are common preservatives in dried fruit, preserved meat, some biscuits and fruit juice. Sulphites have been linked to severe asthma attacks as well as stomach problems. They will be listed on food labels as anything from sodium sulphite to calcium or potassium sulphite. The numbers to look out for are 220 to 228. Try to choose foods which have no preservatives, but be aware that their shelf life will be reduced.

Nitrates and nitrites These are found in virtually all cooked and cured meat, sausages, bacon, ham, frankfurters, hot dogs, salami, corned beef, paté and luncheon sausage, and may also be found in fresh meat and chicken that has been prepared in some way for sale. According to Sue Kedgley, the joint FAo/WHo Expert Committee on Food Additives says it is “highly probable” that nitrites are carcinogenic in humans. They are heavily restricted in some European countries but in New Zealand, they are only not permitted in organic foods. Try to reduce your child’s consumption of smoked, cured and processed meat products such as bacon and sausages and look out for products that are preservative-free or organic. The numbers to watch for on labels are 249 to 252.

Benzoates These are tasteless and odourless and are used as a preservative in fruit juice, soft drinks, cordials, jams and chutneys. They can provoke allergy and intolerance in some people, especially those who suffer from asthma, hyperactivity or urticaria (commonly known as hives). Look out for the numbers 210 to 213, as well as 216 and 218 and try to purchase products that have been labelled “preservative-free”.

Antioxidants While natural antioxidants are great for our health, artificial ones with the numbers 320 and 321 may not be so good. They are used in oils and fats to stop them going rancid and prevent food going brown or developing black spots. Artificial antioxidants have been linked to hyperactivity and allergic reactions such as rashes and asthma. The Japanese Government banned them after a study found they caused cancerous tumours in the stomachs of rats and mice. If possible, use products labelled “no artificial antioxidants”. You can also use good quality vegetable oils such as extra-virgin olive oil, which contain natural antioxidants, and try to eat fresh produce that doesn’t need additives.

Food colouring Brightly coloured foods tend to be marketed to children. There are 10 colours allowed in New Zealand food that health campaigners advise parents to avoid because of links to a wide range of allergic reactions including asthma, hyperactivity and skin rashes. Some food colours have been linked to carcinogenic tumours in laboratory animals. Their numbers are 102, 110, 122, 123, 124, 129, 133, 142, 151 and 155.

Caffeine Children are particularly sensitive to caffeine. After consuming it, they can become hyperactive or have difficulty sleeping. Caffeine affects the nervous system and some scientists are concerned that brain growth and development may be affected in children who have too much of it. Caffeine is present in many soft drinks and energy drinks – children drinking several of these products could easily consume the equivalent of four to six cups of coffee a day. Check the labels of all drinks you purchase for your child, even those that appear healthy.

Artificial sweeteners oany soft drinks, lollies and desserts contain saccharin or aspartame. The use of these artificial sweeteners is the subject of much controversy, which you can easily view on the internet. But arguments aside, why let your child eat something artificial when natural sugar products are available? Look for the numbers 950 to 955 and use natural sweeteners such as honey or sugar – in moderation, of course. If weight loss is necessary, a product called Stevia is a natural low-calorie alternative.

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