How much should kids know?

So, I recently got into a debate over whether kids should be taught to read ingredients labels and told to avoid certain additives like HFCS or artificial colors, etc etc. The argument for teaching kids these things was that it empowers them to know whats in their food and to learn at a young age that advertisers are out to trick them by putting the least healthy foods in the prettiest packaging. I can see where this can be good logic but the age of the children being talked about was anywhere from preschool to tweens. One woman talked about how she discusses aspartame and HFCS with her 7-year-old. I disagreed that kids this young should be fretting over an ingredients label or discussing various food additives and advertising  schemes with their parents. I can see discussing these things with a teenager or preteen in the right context, and not with an “all or nothing” mindset. I do want my children to understand why I make the choices in brands that I do, and to understand that when they buy something it is a vote in telling the food companies what we want and what we don’t. And further more, food companies are not the enemy of someone trying to eat healthy, but thats another post altogether. Anyways, for a younger child I would rather them focus on what they can have rather than make the focus a negative, all about what they can’t have and how evil food companies can be. I’d rather make the focus “Yes we can have cookies every once in a while, but lets make them at home together so it will be more fun!” I want my children to appreciate what a little work in the kitchen can bring and how much better that tastes than cookies sitting on a shelf that are made to last way too long. So yes, I still want to limit their consumption of additives but why make eating more complicated than it has to be? I want them to learn that all cookies should be eaten in moderation, not just that “oh I can’t have this cookie because it has HFCS in it, but look this one with the Organic label doesn’t have HFCS so they must be ok to eat as much as I want”.

Another point I made was that when you start stressing to kids the ingredients label before they are ready to understand it or without posing it in the right context and language, you can start to create a food fear. I’ve studied how eating disorders and disordered eating start and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a general fear of gaining weight that starts it. There are cases where people become aware of whats in their food and when they don’t have this information for a meal or food they either won’t eat any or eat with great trepidation fearing the unknown. I questioned whether the women educating their children about ingredients lists would tell their children they can’t have cake at a birthday party because there could be HFCS and Yellow #5 in it. One actually said she would deny her child. Now all of the sudden you’ve made a food choice that could be fully enjoyed for what it is, a treat at a party, and put a negative connotation on it and made unknown food an enemy. So how will this child handle unavoidable situations later in life where they aren’t going to know what exactly is in the food being offered? I’m just being realistic here, you can’t have control over every single piece of food that goes into your mouth, it just won’t happen. If you teach the child that a small piece of cake is ok every once in a while but not everyday, you’ll still be limiting their exposure to additives while helping them to develop a healthy relationship with food.

Which brings up my last point, when they do studies on these additives, it usually involves a high dose amount of additives in almost pure form in a drink or food item devoid of anything other than sugar and they don’t take into account what the rest of the child’s diet would be. It’s very reductionist science to just pick and choose what you want to study and not take a whole picture point of view about it. Food is more than just it’s separate chemical components whether whole food or processed food. I think it would be an interesting study to see what the effect on a child who eats a diet high in fresh fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean pastured meats, healthy fats  would be when exposed to a small amount of food additives, similiar to what would be found in a piece of birthday cake or bowl of colorful cereal. Whole foods are powerful substances and fruits and vegetables help to detoxify our bodies and promote and support our own body’s natural detoxifying mechanisms. Where is the study that accurately reflects a healthy diet with minimal exposure to food additives? I realize the studies with the extremely high doses of additives probably reflect or at least come close to what the exposure would be on a typical American diet of fast or processed food lacking in whole foods and am no way promoting that a child should have a bowl of colorful cereal in the morning, macaroni from the famous blue box for lunch, a fruity gummy treat for snack, and a dinner by that very helpful glove and some ground beef all in the same day. Just saying that if you focus your kids on good whole food, making things from scratch where you do have control over what goes in it, and not stressing over a choice that isn’t the best every once in a while, you’ll create a much healthier outlook on food and diet than constantly having your 7 year old reading ingredients labels.

When my son and I go shopping I get him fully involved in picking out the fruits and veggies for the week. Giving him choices, letting him feel and smell things. I make a big deal over these things because thats where  I want his excitement to lie. We generally shop the outside of the store but when we do have to go down an aisle and he starts pointing to candy or a sugary cereal I don’t make a huge deal over telling him no. I remind him that this week we’re getting popsicles instead of gummy treats or we’re having yogurt and granola instead of cereal. And other times we go ahead and pick out his favorite cereal without feeling bad about it. For example, this week we went ahead and bought the sugary cereal and he was excited about it, but he also picked out raspberries which he hadn’t had in a long time. Since I made a big deal over how yummy the raspberries were and just put the cereal box in the cart, guess which one he was excited to try when we got home. The raspberries! He kept asking for more and I finally had to tell him to wait for dinner because he was on track to eat the whole carton! Did he ask for the cereal at all? Nope, not until later when he saw it in the pantry but I reminded him we would have it for breakfast tomorrow, and he went along with whatever game he was playing before. If you don’t make the focus on the unhealthy foods, then they become a non-issue. Make the focus on a variety of whole foods and working to make things on your own and your child will gain a healthy relationship with food.

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So, let me hear your opinion! How do you handle your child’s nags for the unhealthy foods at the store? What do you think about eliminating every food additive in your and your child’s diet?

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