The Real Nutrition Problem For Our Kids

Occasionally when the kids are very helpful, we treat them to a meal out. The other day it was Steak N Shake, a favorite for both Cordy and Mira thanks to the paper hats and 50′s cardboard cars they can build. A favorite for me, too, for their amazing Frisco burger.

I know eating out is often not a healthy option – it’s an occasional treat. But even when they order macaroni and cheese or a grilled cheese sandwich, they often choose a side dish of a fruit or veggie. Cordy is obsessed with salads, so she’ll always choose a salad for her side. And Mira often asks for applesauce.

But this time, the restaurant was very busy and they brought Mira’s applesauce out still sealed in it’s cup. I happened to look at the label before she ate it and couldn’t help but stare at what I saw.

Apples, followed by super-sweet high fructose corn syrup and then even more sugar in the form of corn syrup. What the hell? Has this country forgotten that apples are naturally sweet? They don’t need to be laced with added sweeteners to convince kids to eat them.

If you want to fix the problem with nutrition for our kids, start by returning to real food. Meat that you can recognize as meat – without meat byproducts as filler. Fruit without added sugar. Foods without artificial dyes added to brighten them up. Real whole grains. Real cheese without added fillers. Ketchup made from tomatoes, spices and vinegar with almost nothing else. Fruit snacks that are actually made from fruit and not “fruit-flavored” snacks.

I’m a child of the 80′s. (Well, born in the 70′s but most of what I remember was from the 80′s.) I grew up with some of the most artificial food out there. Popsicles that were nothing more than sugar water and a whole lot of artificial coloring. Doritos with bright orange cheese powder that stained everything. Snack cakes filled with enough saturated fat for an adult’s daily intake. Sugar-filled drinks that matched the bright neon clothing we wore.

Sure, I survived it all, but I can guarantee you it didn’t make me any healthier. If anything, it was a big contributor to my later obesity. I also can’t be sure my diet of artificially created food didn’t shave years off the end of my life, or plant the seeds for later cancers. I guess we’ll have to wait and see the outcome.

We, as a society, know better now. Nutritional science has shown that natural is almost always better than man-made and we’re thankfully seeing the pendulum swing towards a return to real foods.

However, the one area that is lagging behind is food geared towards our youngest and most vulnerable population, especially in the markets of restaurant foods and school lunches. Food marketed towards and produced for kids still contains higher amounts of added sugar (especially in the form of high fructose corn syrup), added fat, processed and artificial ingredients, and gallons of artificial food dyes.

Back to my original question: why does applesauce need added sugar? The answer is it doesn’t, and food manufacturers should be ashamed of themselves for continuing to pump additional calories and ingredients into foods that don’t need it. It’s no wonder some kids would refuse to eat an apple – when your taste buds have been taught to seek out unnaturally sweeter, brighter colored foods, a naturally sweet apple probably doesn’t have as much appeal.

We’re letting our kids down. They deserve better than this. And not just the kids who have parents that can afford the “better” stuff – this needs to change from the top brands all the way down to the bulk products sold to schools and institutions. Walking down the aisles of your grocery store, you shouldn’t have to look hard for the “natural, no added sugar” applesauce – that should be the norm.

Change is already happening. Schools are being allowed to opt out of pink slime for their government lunch programs and many parents, now being made aware of the issue, are putting pressure on their local districts to no longer use this processed meat filler. McDonald’s recently changed their Happy Meals to reduce the portion of fries and automatically include apple slices. (And yes, fast food nutrition still has a long way to go, but that’s a great stride forward.)

Companies aren’t going to alter the way they do things without a demand for change, though, and that’s where we come in. It’s our responsibility not to settle for what is being served to our kids. We need to send the message to food manufacturers that we expect better and if they can’t deliver we will take our money to a competitor who will put the health of our children above cheap materials. We need to keep pressuring the government to demand the highest standards for school lunches, which for many poor children are the only chance they have at a complete meal each day.

Our children are a barometer of the health of the nation. What are we seeing? An increase in allergies, obesity, asthma, ADHD, autism, behavioral issues, etc. Of course it’s not all because of food, but I’d guarantee that if kids were raised on a healthier, more natural diet that the severity and incidence of these issues would be far less. My best example of this is Cordy – when kept away from artificial food coloring, she has fewer outbursts and meltdowns and is more “present” in her daily tasks. Add the dyes back in, and it’s like I have a different child.

Look, I’m not trying to take away ice cream, cookies and candy. My own kids would probably stage a revolt against me if I did. I’m just asking that we consider the quality of the ingredients in our food – even the treats – and demand that our food go back to the basics. Ice cream should be milk, cream, eggs, sugar and natural flavoring. Bread should be made with whole grains and not processed, bleached flour.

I don’t want to completely ban artificial ingredients and added sweeteners, but in an ideal world they would be harder to find on menus and grocery shelves than foods without them. There is a place for them, but that place isn’t in nearly every food product we push towards kids.

Read the ingredient labels on your foods. If there’s something on the label that you don’t believe should be in that food, or even if you aren’t sure why it’s there, take five minutes to contact the company and tell them how you feel. Ask them to take high fructose corn syrup out of their applesauce. Ask Kraft to make their mac and cheese without FD&C Yellow #5 and Yellow #6 when the same product they make in Britain is just as brightly colored with paprika and beta carotene.

As for Mira’s applesauce at Steak N Shake? I explained to her what was in it and offered to let her have a container of her natural applesauce back at home instead. She happily chose to wait until we got home for the natural applesauce.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I think you make a fantastic point here. I wish I had grown up without the added sugar–I have struggled with addiction to sugar and obesity my entire adult life (I’m 31). On a side note, I used to love the Frisco melt…then I saw this:

  2. Oh, I know the frisco melt is absolutely awful for me. :) I eat it about 2 times a year max, and enjoy every single bite. (And then usually eat very little for my next meal because I’m so full.)

    As long as it’s not a regular thing, I see nothing wrong with splurges and even encourage them. The problem is when it becomes the norm instead of the exception.

  3. Amen! I am a huge fan of TreeTop’s natural applesauce. In fact, whenever I make my kids chicken nuggets at home (a really unhealthy dinner), they know they must eat applesauce to offset it. My poor kids have never had sweetend applesauce or seetened peanut butter. They know all too well the siren song of donuts and fries though. The drive thru is all too tempting as a working parent. Thanks for the reminder to be vigilant!

  4. Christine says:

    The thing about the differences between a UK version of something vs. the US one ticks me off like no other. There is nothing SAFE about artificial dyes, Kraft! (And every other mainstream food company out there) I hate that mindset of this country and its corporations/lobbyists/policy makers: Safe until proven dangerous. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?!

  5. Great post, Christina. I agree: the way we eat is why Americans as a whole are so overweight. I think that when kids are fed all of this processed stuff, it gets their bodies used to eating like that and it’s so much harder to enjoy the basics.

    On the other side of the coin, though, the truth is that so much of this processed food is cheaper than eating basic, “real” food and in today’s economy, many people don’t have a lot of choice. :(

  6. I too wonder if my obsession with chocolate has anything to do with what we ate in the 80′s.

  7. Frosted Fingers says:

    I agree with you. I’ve been trying to steer more away from processed foods and making everything at home. When it comes to snacks for the kids I’ve been buying them at Trader Joes where I know they try to do better for our kids.

  8. I find it so difficult to say “No” to this artificial food when it’s all that I can see when I go to the grocery.

  9. MN RN Mom says:

    It’s been a constant struggle of mine to keep N’s diet as natural as possible and I have had to relax on a lot of former “no’s” as she got older, more opinionated and started school. We’ve always gotten unsweetened applesauce and put cinnamon on it if it needed something else. N is another one who will only eat mach & cheese in the resteraunt but always asks for fresh fruit with it :-) Now if only I could disarm the candy monster so easily!

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