You're busy, Mama. Believe me, I get it — as a full-time working mother of a 5 year old and a 4 year old, I often joke that life would be so much easier if someone just added extra hours to the day (or cloned me, ha!). So if you were to tell me you often skip reading the nutrition label of your kids' snacks, well, you'd get no judgment out of me.
Having said that, I think we all know deep down we very well should be paying closer attention to those labels printed on the back of snack boxes and bags. To underscore the importance of why, we asked several nutrition experts to weigh in. Here are the reasons they insist all mamas should be label-readers.
Prior to starting her own business, registered dietitian Jessica Levings worked with the CDC's Sodium Reduction Initiative. Today, she works with companies to develop food labels for packaged foods and with restaurants to help them comply with the menu labeling regulation. To say she is passionate about raising awareness regarding excess sodium would be an understatement.
"Most children eat too much sodium, primarily from packaged and restaurant foods such as pizza, breads and rolls and snacks. In fact, the CDC estimates that children ages 6 to 18 are getting about 16 percent of their sodium intake from snacks alone," Levings said. "Higher sodium intake in children is associated with higher blood pressure, and eating less sodium can lower children's blood pressure. Similar foods can vary greatly in sodium content, and checking food labels for lower-sodium options can go a long way toward reducing children's overall sodium intake."
To address this imbalance, Levings recommends buying snacks labeled "low sodium," "no salt added" or "unsalted."
2. Artificial ingredients
Unfortunately, there are many hidden dangers lurking in the ingredient list of some of our kids' favorite snacks... particularly artificial ingredients. As a licensed psychologist and board-certified nutrition specialist, Nicole Beurkens of Horizons Developmental Resource Center is a self-professed "huge proponent of looking at nutrition labels on the foods kids eat." Doing so, she emphasizes, can lead to marked health benefits.
"Many children experience symptoms of mental health issues such as inattention, hyperactivity, irritability, impulsivity and anxiety as a result of the foods they are eating. Research has shown that artificial sweeteners, food dyes, chemical preservatives, added sugars (including high-fructose corn syrup) and more can all cause or exacerbate these issues in children and teens. Parents should be aware of the potential impact of food ingredients on child learning, mood and behavior. Ensuring adequate protein, reducing sugar intake and reducing or eliminating dyes and chemicals are all simple strategies to support a child’s ability to focus, reduce anxiety, improve mood and decrease impulsivity and hyperactivity," advised Beurkens.
If you think about it, GMOs — or genetically modified organisms — can also be classified as artificial ingredients and should be another red flag on ingredient labels. "The pesticides in GM produce can multiply in the intestines," cautioned certified nutritionist and best-selling cookbook author Ariane Resnick of Ariane Cooks. "Your child's immunity is still forming (and predominantly in the gut), so weakening their immunity via GMO ingredients isn't wise."
Of all of the reasons you should read the nutrition labels on your kids' snacks, none popped up with more prevalence than sugar. Marian Mitchell, certified integrative nutrition health coach with Road to Living Whole LLC, has a simple (but pointed) explanation for this.
"I can say that just because a snack is designed for kids, it can have as much sugar as a can of soda or a candy bar," she said. "Looking at labels can ensure that you pick the best snacks for your children."
According to Food Allergy Research and Education, up to 15 million Americans have food allergies — with the potentially deadly condition affecting 1 in every 13 children under the age of 18. And since food allergies among children increased approximately 50 percent just between 1997 and 2011, it makes sense for parents to be more mindful of potential triggers. "Over-consumption of certain foods is a top cause of allergies, so you should know if your child is eating multiple servings a day of wheat, corn, soy, etc," elaborated Resnick.
5. Misleading information
By now, most of us know that things are not always what they seem. This can be particularly true when it comes to the packaging of food products, says registered dietitian and functional nutrition-certified practitioner Stephanie Dunne of Nutrition QED.
"Parents should pay attention to the nutrition label of kids' snacks because the information on the front of the box or bag may be misleading, especially if the parent is trying to make a healthy choice," said Dunne. "Looking at the nutrition information includes reading the nutrition facts label to see how many calories and grams of fat, protein, carbohydrates and sugar the food contains, but also means reading the ingredient list so they know exactly what they are feeding their little one."
Several examples of misleading children's snacks spring to mind... one of which most of us have stocked in the pantry at some point or another. "[A well-known brand of] fruit snacks are advertised on the front as made with real fruit and being fat-free. While both of those are true statements, the product is loaded with corn syrup, sugar and nothing to help slow the absorption of the sugar into the bloodstream, which can contribute to insulin resistance and glucose intolerance," Dunne explained.
So while it can be tempting to want to save time and just grab whatever is on the shelf at the market, do your kids' health a favor and spend a few seconds reading the labels on their snacks.
This post was sponsored by the goodness of GoGo squeeZ®.