The Healthy Guide to Intelligent Eating

What should be in your child’s food, what should not and what it all means
By Lucille Kemp

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Food Label Lingo
The info on food packaging can be tricky to understand, but being able to “read” what’s printed on the label can make all the difference to your family’s diet (and wellbeing). We chatted to a few people in the know and rounded up some tips for food shopping savvy…
The order of the nutrients on a nutritional label corresponds to how much of each is in the food. The first on the list is the main ingredient and the last makes up the smallest portion. A typical nutrition analysis table must provide information on kilojoules (energy), total fat, saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, dietary fibre, sugar and protein. To keep you and your family healthy choose food that has no cholesterol, reduced saturated fat, preservatives and sodium (salt) and that is trans fat free. Favour calcium, dietary fibre and good fats such as monounsaturated fat, which can be found in avocados and peanuts, and polyunsaturated fat, which is found in salmon. Simple carbohydrates and lean proteins are also good in moderate quantities. Overall, choose products that contain less than 20 percent of the daily values for fat, cholesterol and sodium.
Nutrient reference values (NRVs) now replace the term RDA, and are a recommended guideline to preventing nutrient deficiencies and disease. These also help you see how a food fits into an overall daily diet. Gabi Steenkamp, a Johannesburg-based dietician who is also a food-labelling consultant, advises that you take note of the NRVs as they apply to everyone in the family that is four years and older.
Serving size aims to keep you and your family’s food portions within healthy limits. If children are to keep a healthy weight, it is vital from a nutritional point of view that parents keep the serving to the size recommended on the packaging.
Good news for the consumer is that new food labelling legislation comes into effect on 1 March 2011. Products will be more accurately represented, ingredients will be better monitored and scrutinised for consumer safety and it will be illegal to make flippant health claims – no more terms such as “healthy” and “nutritious” splashed across a box of sugary cereal. Claims such as “fat free”, “sugar free”, “light”, “low fat”, and “high fibre” will only be able to be used if, according to Gabi, “certain provisos are met; the nutritional analysis is done by a reputable SANAS (The South African National Accreditation System) accredited laboratory, following accredited procedures; and the level of the stated nutrient is in fact at the level set out in the legislation.” Rulings are yet to be passed on claims about the relationship between a nutrient and a disease, such as calcium and osteoporosis, or fat and cancer, for example. (For a detailed breakdown of new food labelling regulations visit the Department of Health’s website at
Organic labelling has often been used as a catchphrase in the marketing and branding world. For this reason it is heavily monitored and regulated – products undergo a stringent assessment. The food should have no (or very little) synthetic chemical input such as fertiliser, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and the use of sewage sludge is not allowed. The farmland also needs to have been free of synthetic chemicals for a number of years.
Avoiding Trolley Trash
That old saying “you are what you eat” has more than a sprinkling of truth in it. Being informed about the ingredients in food and the related health implications means you can make good choices for your family. Here are some things to keep in mind…
A build-up of LDL cholesterol causes high blood cholesterol and is linked to coronary heart disease. It shouldn’t be shrugged off as an exclusively adult issue. Pay particular attention to your child’s saturated fat intake because “the effect of a poor diet on cholesterol levels is cumulative and starts in childhood,” says Gabi.
Saturated fat is linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, weight gain and certain types of cancer. To maintain optimum health Gabi advises: “A primary school child should consume no more than 80g of fat per day in total. This means choosing leaner protein and dairy foods, with only one added fat to every meal your child eats.”
Sodium increases the risk of getting cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. Chicken nuggets, tinned veggies (opt for frozen veggies, if not fresh, as they will have been frozen straight from harvest), microwave meals, frozen pizzas, cured meats and even yoghurt have been shown to contain an excessive amount of salt. A healthy daily intake of salt for a child aged one to three years old should be a little more than half a teaspoon (1 500mg), four to eight year olds should be eating just less than one teaspoon (1 900mg), nine to 13 year olds should be eating close on one teaspoon (2 200mg) and from the age of 14 and older they may eat the same as an adult – one teaspoon (2 300mg). Probably the easiest way to keep within the guidelines and control your family’s salt consumption is to cook your own meals.
Trans-fatty-acids can increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and weight gain. They can be found in fried foods, store-bought baked goods such as doughnuts, cookies, crackers, processed foods and certain margarines. These fats form when vegetable oil hardens (a process called hydrogenation).
Limit carbohydrates and added sugar if diabetes runs in the family. Low GI is ideal – the glycemic index was originally developed by doctors who wanted to find the foods best for people with diabetes.
Healthy cut-offs of sugar and fat consumption depend on each food category. For instance, bread with a fat content of 3g per 100g is a high-fat bread, but lasagne and yoghurt with this level of fat would be classed as low in fat. Gabi also suggests looking at a child’s serving size. “If one sweet is consumed the sugar content will be okay, but if a whole mini packet of sweets is eaten, then the sugar becomes excessive. Everything is okay in moderation.”
Artificial colourants and flavourants are said to be linked to allergies, hyperactivity, asthma and cancer. However, this should not be taken out of context, as Gabi puts it: “Additives are very well controlled in South Africa. The miniscule amount that you are being exposed to will make no difference as long as you make sure you are tempering this with an active lifestyle and you, for the most part, eat freshly made food and lots of fruit and vegetables.” 
Gabi also says you need to know your E numbers before you make your judgements. “E numbers refer to all additives to food, including vitamins and other beneficial or useful additives. For example, the E number for vitamin C is E300.”
Ready, Steady, Cook
Having completed a label-savvy shop, you’re now ready to whip up your family’s meals. Eating healthily, however, doesn’t have to be a mission.
The key to a healthy diet is fresh over instant. Plan a once-a-week fresh produce shop so that fruit and vegetables are always available in the home – and you’re sorted.
Half your child’s plate should be filled with vegetables. This will improve the nutritional value of all meals – even fish fingers and oven chips become okay, according to Durban-based dietician Paula Lawson. She goes on to say: “The busy parent who relies on prepared meals will make the nutrient composition of that pre-prepared meal so much better by abiding by the half plate of salad and veg rule.” If you are going to buy a prepared meal, Paula suggests you go for a low GI option, which means that the glucose sugars release slowly and steadily into the body throughout the day, giving your child long-lasting energy.
A plate of food should be portioned following the food pyramid, says Paula. “That is: a palm of protein, a fist of low GI carbs, and half a plate of salad and vegetables. Serve fresh, seasonal foods and in so doing you will automatically limit packaged, processed long-life shelf foods.” Paula says parents should encourage water consumption – this should take the place of cool drinks and juices, while fruit juice, when consumed, needs to be made with 100 percent fruit juice blends, and preferably diluted with water.
When it comes to breakfast cereal scrutinise the ingredients list. Gabi’s take on cereal is a real eye-opener. “Most cereals are highly refined foods; foods from Mother Nature will always be much better.” At least most have vitamins and minerals added, but the absorption of these is dependent on what form the vitamins and minerals take. The bottom line is that many cereals are too concentrated and refined, and often too high in sugar. “A little sugar does no harm, but starting off the day with a huge dose of sugar and refined carbohydrates is not conducive to good concentration at school.”
Based on what we mentioned earlier about the order of the ingredients indicating their position on the list, Gabi offers a useful tip. “If the first ingredients are wheat flour and whole wheat, the cereal is actually made of very concentrated carbohydrates in the form of flour – not exactly a cereal. If sugar features in the first two or three ingredients then chances are the cereal contains too much sugar,” she says. If your child insists on cereal, seek out the products that list a whole grain, but be sure to check the fibre content. Cereals should have less than 5g of sugar per serving, and brown rice instead of white rice makes a better choice since it’s higher in fibre. Cooked oats (not the instant variety) is the best breakfast for your child and is a good example of a whole grain. Some dieticians say that you can even make a small difference by taking the cereal that your child likes and mixing it with a whole grain option.

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