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02/06/2010 10:53:00

What's In My Kid's Food?

Reading The Labels - An Interview With Children's Nutritionist Clare Panchoo

We are forever being told that children are eating too much fat, sugar and salt. We may know that many adult foods are unsuitable for children, but if we stick to foods developed for children, we won't go far wrong, surely? Well, apparently not. Many foods marketed specifically to children are less healthy than those for adults. So where do we go for reliable information? I hoped Clare Panchoo, a nutritionist with over 15 years experience, could tell me.

Clare's nutrition consultancy has provided support to health clubs, medical clinics, food manufacturers and coffee shops. The birth of her first child in 2005 prompted Clare to look in more detail at children’s nutrition and led to her writing a guide for parents to help them decipher what’s in their children’s food. The resulting book
"What's In This?" was published in 2008.

Your book tries to help parents find out what is in children's food. Why did you decide to write it?
When searching for foods as my daughter outgrew weaning foods I discovered that there are no guidelines that manufacturers of foods and drinks marketed at children have to adhere to - in terms of the maximum levels of sugar, saturated fat and salt or additives such as colourings, flavourings and preservatives.
There are very strict guidelines governing foods prepared for children and babies under 12 months (i.e. weaning foods) but once a child is beyond this stage products marketed at them can contain any of the 500 approved E numbers and any quantities of sugar, fat and salt as is found in adult products.

Why is it important to know how to read the labels?
In my research I discovered that some children's foods actually contain greater amounts of sugars or salt than adult versions – this could lead children to develop a taste for these types of foods and find other more healthy options rather bland and not so appealing.
Children have different nutritional needs to adults. Parents need help to work through the minefield of messages and confusing information that bombards them when shopping for their family and to be able to be confident of making informed choices about what they feed their children.

Lots of products tell us about good things they contain. Is that helpful?
The ‘tick' lists can be pretty misleading. They are meant to give parents the impression that a product is healthy and in some cases this genuinely reflects the product but I found that it's usually what's not listed that is more a cause for concern.
Say the tick list says that a product contains no artificial colours or flavourings – it may still contain artificial preservatives. Also a tick list highlighting that a product contains no artificial stuff does not make a product healthy – don't forget to check the sugar or salt contents too.
The same goes for when a particular nutrient is mentioned e.g. a source of calcium or fibre.
Remember that whilst providing a useful source of information for parents, the tick list is also an advert for the product written by the manufacturer so of course will only mention the good features.

What's the first thing to look at on a label?
Ingredients are listed in order of highest amounts first, so always check the first 3 or 4 ingredients as this can tell you a lot about the product – is the ham really high in actual meat? Is there a lot of sugar in the product?

How do parents decide which products are too sugary?

With regards to sugar the really easy way of quickly calculating whether a product is high in sugar is to look at the nutritional information – sugars should be listed under carbohydrates (of which sugars). A teaspoon equals approximately 5g so it is very easy to work out how many teaspoons of sugar there are in a product. So if a product contains 17g of sugars this is the equivalent to 3.5 teaspoons of sugar – does this sound like a lot to you? Would you consider adding that to your child’s cereal in the morning or into natural yogurt?
Sugar free isn’t necessarily more healthy. When sugar is taken out of a product say a drink then the manufacturer may add artificial sweeteners to maintain the taste and also artificial preservatives to give the product a good shelf life – sugar acts as a natural preservative. The benefit of sugar free is that artificial sweeteners do not decay teeth. It may be worth buying pure fruit juices or fruit cordial without all the chemicals and diluting them well so they are less damaging to teeth.
The statement ‘no added sugar’ on the label does not necessarily mean that the product is low in sugar. Dried fruit snacks or bars may only contain sugar found naturally in the fruit but this is not treated by the body as any different to table sugar – they are both converted into energy in the same way. In fact some of these types of bars can contain more sugar in a small bag or bar than you’ll find in a chocolate bar. When fruit is dried the sugar becomes more concentrated and the quantity of fruit that can be consumed can be very high – think how many raisins a child could eat compared to fresh grapes. So the rule of thumb for working out whether a product is high in sugar still should apply to these items too.

What about fat and salt?
Not all fat is bad for children. Try to avoid foods that contain a lot of saturated fat (animal derived fat) and stick to foods which contain vegetable and seed oils.
Salt – it is very easy for a child to exceed his or her maximum daily salt intake so keep a look out for the traffic lights on labels – when red this means the product is high in salt.

What do parents need to know about additives?
The E prefix means that the additive has been approved for use in foods by the European Union i.e. it has been tested and deemed safe for use in foods and drinks. Not all additives are ‘bad’ in fact the majority are pretty neutral and play a role in food safety, food aesthetics and flavour or increase shelf life. A few may actually be beneficial for the body.
However, some research studies have seemed to show a possible link between certain additives and adverse reactions in particular behavioural changes in children, eczema and asthma. Much of the evidence is fairly anecdotal but one study conducted by Southampton University published in The Lancet in 2007 did conclude than behavioural changes seen in children were linked to combinations of six azo dye food colourings and one preservative. In response to this study the Food Standards Authority and the European Food Standards Authority have now released new guidelines on the 6 azo dyes that any product containing these must be labelled with the warning ‘May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children". Does this really go far enough when you consider that these are not essential ingredients in the products and could be very easily removed? Instead any parent worried about these colourings will have to check labels pretty vigilantly to spot them.

When choosing for your own children, what ingredients would put you off buying something? Why?
There are a few ingredients I try to make sure my children ingest only very occasionally and these are artificial sweeteners, food colourings, certain preservatives such as sodium benzoate and hydrogenated fats. In general no single ingredient or food makes us unhealthy when we eat them in small quantities and not very frequently. It is worth bearing in mind that a chosen breakfast cereal or sandwich filling which a child may be eating every day will have a greater impact on the child’s overall health than the one-off treats.

Are there any positive developments in children's foods?
Manufacturers are definitely becoming more responsible with ingredients such as preservatives and colourings and opting to use natural ones rather than artificial ones.
There are also now some very innovative brands in the baby and toddler aisle who are really improving the offering for young children.

What was the most surprising or shocking thing you found out when you were researching the book?
Surprising - that the product ranges I expected to be the least healthy and contain the most additives e.g. ready meals sometimes way exceeded my expectations.
Shocking - that some of the products that are commonly regarded as fairly healthy like breakfast cereals, cereal bars and bread often contain very high amounts of sugar and salt.
Shocking – that many children’s medicines contain artificial sweeteners, artificial preservatives, artificial colours. The cost of reformulation and the clinical trials and testing that needs to be carried out with any change to the formulation means that it is unlikely these will change quickly.

Where can parents go for help if their child has problems with food?
If you are worried about allergies or your child has ADHD then there are some great websites out there to help: Action on Additives (, The Children’s Hyperactivity Support Group (, Asthma UK (, Allergy UK (, National Eczema Society (, Food Standards Authority (

You can contact Clare via twitter at
Clare is launching a new children's food company Born To Be Yummy, later this year.


05/06/2010 12:49:00 by garden mom

This is very interesting. I wonder where we can find out what the 6 dodgy colours are that the nutritionist is referring to?

09/06/2010 10:35:00 by Clare Panchoo

Hi Garden Mum,

The 6 food colourings I am referring to are:
Suset yellow (E110)
Quinoline Yellow (E104)
Carmoisine (E122)
Allura Red (E129)
Tartrazine (E102)
Ponceau 4R (E124)
They are all artificial colours so when a product says it contains all natural colours it will not contain any of the above. I found them in some varieties of cordials, fizzy drinks, sweets, cakes, cake mixes, children's medicines.

Clare Panchoo

17/06/2010 21:23:00 by Lisa Pye

Thanks for this, it's really helpful.

I heard about bread being high in salt before and was so surprised.

Cereals are tricky I find. I bought some plain, no added salt or sugar cereals in a health food shop but they were horribly bland, really expensive and not fortified with the iron etc that other brands have. Other than porridge, what's the best bet?


18/06/2010 14:14:00 by Clare Panchoo

Hi Lisa,

In answer to your question:

Many cereals contain about 0.5 g of salt per 30g portion - this is about 1/6 of a childs reccomended daily intake. My 4 yo usually has way more than a 30g serving as its pretty tiny so this can really contribute a significant amount of salt. Shreddies and Weetabix have about half of this and Shredded Wheat is low in salt.

I make my own muesli for my 2 using any of the following to create something yummy: wheat flakes, oats, pure cornflakes & puffed rice (from Healthfood stores), nuts (flaked almonds, hazelnut etc.), seeds (pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, linseeds), raisins, hazelnuts, flaked coconut. Best bit is the kids can help mix everything together with you and mine love shaking it all up.

Other options: mix some of the muesli with a cereal they like to lower the salt or top up a smaller portion of cereal with yogurt and bananas, fresh fruit or a handful of dried fruit.

Hope this gives you some ideas.


27/06/2010 22:41:00 by Lisa

That is really helpful, thank you. Good to know there are some brands that aren't so bad.

Great idea to make our own muesli. My children would really enjoy choosing the ingredients in the shop and mixing it all up. Will definitely do that!

Thank you!


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