Snacks attacked

With our Christmas tree down and the accompanying paraphernalia long packed away, our empty house and bare walls only emphasise a clean start to the new year. Change is in the air. At least, most hope things will improve on many fronts in 2018. Meanwhile, on an individual level, many have already made a change for themselves and are halfway through January as a teetotaller, vegan, raw water drinker or exercise fanatic. But even if you haven’t joined the masses and embraced a new food or exercise fad, you will still have to contend with the repetitive commercials and programs focusing on diet trends and quick weight loss. Amongst all this comes the news that parents are failing their children, again, when it comes to a healthy diet. Yes, it’s a cheery Happy New Year from Public Health England (PHE) who have launched their latest campaign even while the remnants of Christmas stockings are still hanging around many households.

The timing of Change4Life launch on the 2nd January meant it could have easily been sold as a New Year’s resolution for parents. Christmas was evidence enough for most parents to witness just how much sugary indulgence their children could pack in each day. Therefore, parents didn’t need to be reminded of the PHE’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey that showed that we are all eating far too much added sugar. As a result, there are a record number of children with dental caries and eating snacks containing added sugar between mealtimes is the main cause. Of course, the more visible effect of eating too much sugar can be seen in our nurseries and schools. Who could dispute that over a third of children are still leaving primary school overweight or obese? Which is why the focus of PHE’s new campaign is on the amount of sugar and calories that children and teenagers graze on throughout the day. With over half of amount of added sugar children and teenagers consume coming from unhealthy snacks such as biscuits, cakes, pastries, buns, sweets, juice and fizzy drinks, PHE are now calling on all parents to get a grip.

The ‘100 calorie snacks, two a day max!’ Change4Life campaign aims to help parents take back control of their children’s snacking habits by closing down the 24-hour buffet of high calorie sugary snacks available to them. Using the slogan’s simple rule of thumb, Change4Life wants parents to reduce the number of snacks their children eat each day and cut down on the amount of sugar and calories contained in each snack. Parents are advised to offer a maximum of two healthy snacks per day using the ‘100 calorie’ rule. However, the rule does not apply to fruit and veg as PHE wants everyone to eat more of these.

The Change4Life campaign is spreading its message with their distinctive Aardman characters. In the new ad, the characters try to avoid being squashed by a growing number of sugar cubes that pour out from some sugary foods and drinks while exploring the supermarket aisles. This is quite a feat, as apart from a mouth, they have no facial features whatsoever, but perhaps they can taste danger. In any case, all is ok because as a voiceover asks what we can do to protect our children from the harmful snacks, we see the characters safely singing and dancing near the clearly labelled ‘healthier snacks’. Just in case we weren’t following the plot, an actual parent appears and checks the label of a box of healthier snacks before reassuringly popping it into their shopping basket with a happy child in tow.

In conjunction with the 8-week campaign, a Smarter Snacking Pack that includes money-off vouchers for healthier snacks and stickers can be ordered by signing up to the Change4Life website. In addition, the handy Change4Life Food Scanner app has been relaunched to help parents identify which snacks are healthy while they shop. The app scans the barcodes of foods and drinks and gives a calorie count and ‘traffic light’ rating according to the amount of sugar, sat fat and salt contained. An amber or red traffic light will trigger a ‘More ideas’ link underneath the traffic light which will bring up a relevant Change4Life webpage suggesting a healthier swap to something more ‘green light’.

With the campaign now in full swing and children back at school and away from any leftover Christmas treats, it is a very good opportunity to try to help families make a healthy change to their diet. Therefore, this initiative seems to be a very positive way to encourage parents and children to think more about what they are eating and promote healthier snacking. However, as I looked further into the details of the Change4Life campaign as both a health professional and a parent of big snackers, I was a little surprised by what I found.

I thought I would start by visiting my nearest supermarket armed with the Food Scanner app to check out some of the the100kcal healthier snack options available through the Change4Life money-off vouchers. The snacks featured in the vouchers included malt loaf, lower-sugar fromage frais, mini-packs of nuts and flavoured water with no added sugar. Although they weren’t the kinds of snacks I expected to see in the vouchers, I forged ahead, ready to watch out for any sugar cubes lurking in the aisles.

After scanning some random foods on the shelves for comparison, I went to the first snack on my list, Petit Filous fromage frais. I recognised the little pots and had bought them in the past as my children used to eat them for their pudding. But from memory, they used to contain added sugar. However, when I scanned the pack, rather than getting a traffic light rating of the fromage frais, my screen filled with a bright yellow Change4Life ‘Woohoo! This is a healthier yoghurt choice and makes a great snack, yum!’ I was a little surprised by this but I thought Petit Filous must have changed the ingredients. What did I know? I hadn’t bought it for several years. I took a closer look at the ingredients label but there it was, the second ingredient was still sugar. How could Change4Life be saying this was a good snack choice? What about tooth decay?

I went back again to the scan of the fromage frais, which I had to pick out from my list of previous scans. I clicked on it and interestingly, the scan now looked very different. The ‘Woohoo’ had now shrunk to the bottom of the screen and now the missing traffic light appeared. Only it showed amber for sugar and sat fat and green for salt. Now I was really confused. Is Change4Life saying the Petit Filous was still a healthier snack option and that amber, amber green snacks were ok? The traffic light told me that each tiny pot was 41kcals and contained 4.7g sugar (more than1tsp). To be fair, there are much worse fromage frais and yoghurts and this one was certainly not sugar-laden. But eating it as a snack still counted as eating the white stuff between meals. Our teeth don’t care if it’s the least worst fromage frais.

I then clicked on the link underneath to ‘Find out more’ and it showed that Change4Life had had second thoughts about the fromage frais. The screen showed a blue Aardman figure holding up a large sign saying, ‘There’s no reds but can you find a swap with more greens?’ So now they do want me to swap the Petit Filous for something healthier? Let me see, if only I could find a healthier fromage frais to swap with? I wonder what Change4Life would recommend? Of course, I scanned the same Petit Filous again and rewarded with the same healthier ‘Woohoo!’ Sorted!

While scanning and Woohooing the fromage frais several times to see if I could trip it up, I thought I might as well check out the rest of Petit Filous range as they appeared to only differ in flavour. Scanning them didn’t produce any initial Woohoos, but funnily enough, the traffic light rating of the Petit Filous Big Pots, Greek Style and Frubes were all the same. In fact they shared the same traffic light ambers for sugar and sat fat and greens for salt as the recommended fromage frais. But did this mean that these were just as ‘healthy’?

A quick look at the ingredients revealed that Greek Style and Frubes fromage frais contained considerably more added sugar than the original fromage frais but worse was to come. I scanned the Petit Filous Little Desserts Chocolate & Vanilla flavour expecting to see some red traffic lights because as the name implies, they are desserts. In addition, the ingredients label clearly showed that each 55g pot contains almost 17tsp of added sugar. However, inexplicably, a quick scan of the Little Desserts gave the same traffic light rating as the ‘healthy’ fromage frais.

I had had enough of the chilled aisle by now and went in search of the next healthy snack available through the vouchers. Soreen Banana and Original Malt Lunchbox Loaves were in my sight and I quickly got down to work scanning. Each of the 25g different flavoured Lunchbox Loaves was roughly 95kcals and the scans prompted the same congratulatory ‘Woohoos’ as the fromage frais. Delving further, I called up the scans again through my scan history to get a traffic light. This time, the Loaves were given a traffic light rating of amber for sugar, green for sat fat and amber for salt. Looking closer again at the ingredients label, I found that the Banana and Original Malt flavours contained 5.8g and 5.1g added sugar, respectively. Which meant that there was even more sugar than the fromage frais hidden behind the Woohoo! What about the teeth??! I clicked on the link underneath the traffic light to ‘Find out more’. As expected, another blue Aardman figure appeared holding up a sign saying ‘This is mostly amber. Can you find foods with more greens?’ Not again!

Looking on the supermarket shelves, I saw two more flavours of Soreen’s range of individually packaged loaves. Soreen’s Mini Loaves weren’t included in the money-off vouchers but that wasn’t surprising as they came in toffee and chocolate flavours and featured Disney characters on the packets. A quick scan of the Mini Loaves didn’t result in a Woohoo but in the expected traffic light. It told me that the Mini Loaves were a fraction larger than the Lunchbox Loaves at 30g but were still under 100kcals. Surprisingly, the amber, green, amber traffic lights also showed that their sugar content was comparable to Soreen’s healthy Lunchbox Loaves. Toffee flavour contained 5.4g added sugar and chocolate flavour contained 5.8g added sugar.

I felt like I was scanning in a parallel universe as it seemed utterly bizarre that the larger Toffee Mini Loaf contained less sugar than the recommended ‘healthier’ Banana Lunchbox Loaf. I could not understand why Change4Life was telling parents to give these to their children as healthy snacks. Why would any parent think that the Toffee Mini Loaves are any less healthy than the Banana Lunchbox Loaves if they have less sugar? The loaves even resemble mini cakes so what’s the difference between giving your child the recommended Lunchbox Loaf or just giving them a slice of cake? Would toffee cake be better than banana? How can any parent know what a healthy snack is if Change4Life is blurring the lines? I despair…

By this point, I had had enough of disappointing scans and I simply couldn’t face the last two snacks on the vouchers. I also was tired of getting odd looks from supermarket staff and other shoppers who had watched me pick up a series of different foods to scan and only to scowl and put them back in the wrong place. Despite the time I had spent, my shopping basket was still empty and I was starting to get hungry. I headed straight for the large green light section of fruit and veg to fill up my basket before heading home.

Although it is clear that we need to do something about the unhealthy snacking culture of our children and teenagers, parents need all the help they can get. Which is why a campaign that encourages healthier snacking with money-off vouchers and a handy app is very welcome. However, I think that PHE, through the Change4Life ‘100 calorie snacks, two a day max!’, have confused the message of what is a healthy snack. It is not helpful that they are encouraging snacks containing added sugar because not only do they cause tooth decay and contain empty calories but they can be easily confused with similar snacks containing even more sugar. And if Change4Life’s own app can’t make up its mind on whether a snack it’s supposed to be promoting is healthy or not, how can they expect parents to?

So, what is the answer? Well, as a parent I would say that there’s no time like the present to have another look at what your family is eating and take on the broad message of the Change4Life campaign. Make changes, where needed, to your children’s snacks and limit them to between meals.

When it comes to what is a healthy snack, my own rule of thumb is to keep it simple. Start with the super greens of fruit and veg. Add some carbs such as bread/toast, a bagel, pitta bread, rice cakes or bread sticks. If they’re really hungry, add a little protein such as cottage cheese, hummus, peanut butter or cheese. At the moment, some of the snacks eaten in my kitchen by teenagers include a peanut butter and banana wrap, cheese bun with an apple, hunk of bread with a carrot and even porridge and banana. Clearly, different children will have different tastes so the trick is find out what works for you.

Speaking of which, what works for my family is a slice of Banana walnut loaf which can be sliced up and packed into a lunchbox or tucked into for a mid-afternoon break. And fear not, there are no sugar cubes lurking in it.

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