Eating for Success at School
Healthy additive free lunches and snacks are important for children and help with concentration and learning. Healthy choices are not always obvious, as foods that seem healthy can be loaded harmful artificial colours, flavours, additives and preservatives.
Healthy canteen guidelines and a focus on childhood obesity have lead to an awareness of avoiding high levels of fats and sugars, however there many additives in pre-packed foods that appear in lunch boxes that are harmful to children and interfere with their ability to learn and perform at school.
Symptoms from consuming additives can include irritability, restlessness, learning and behavioural disorders, sleeping problems and a wide range of health problems from skin rashes and asthma to irritable bowel symptoms. Some of these symptoms occur immediately after consumption but others are cumulative in their effect and therefore harder to recognise.
In September 2007, Southampton University in the UK published a study funded by the Foods Standards Agency, which found that artificial additives are connected to tantrums, poor concentration and slow progress at school. The amount of additives given was less than what many children get in a day, and the result was increased hyperactive behaviours such as inattention, impulsivity and overactivity.
The findings show that adverse effects are not just seen in those with conditions such as ADHD, but in the general population, with varying severity. The researchers point out that increased hyperactivity is clearly associated with the development of educational difficulties, especially in relation to reading; the effects of these additives could affect a child’s ability to benefit form the whole experience of schooling. All children could benefit from the removal of these additives from their food.
A similar study was recently undertaken in Australia by Sue Dengate from the Food Intolerance Network where she put an entire school on a preservative and additive free diet. Within days, the kids and the teachers could not believe the changes. The students were calmer and more focussed.
After a review of numerous scientific studies, independent scientists from the Centre for Science in the Public Interest recommended that schools and other institutions dealing with children should minimise the use of food additives, especially food colours that may contribute to behavioural disorders. "The obvious public health response would be to remove the irritants, if possible, from the foods that children eat," the scientists concluded.
In the UK, the Food Standards Agency is urging manufacturers to take action and remove these additives from their products however in Australia; FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand) appears non-committal about these findings.
In Australia food manufacturers are continually allowed to use additives that have adverse effects on health and behaviour, some of which have their use banned or limited in other countries.
The responsibility for avoiding these additives in Australia remains with the consumer. The good news is that there are plenty of SAFE food options available; you just need to know what to look for.
Examples of additives that are commonly found in supposedly ‘healthy’ foods.
Sulphites - 220-228 are found in most dried fruits unless they are organic. As they are strongly linked to asthma, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends the average daily intake of sulphur dioxide (220) for an average 10 year old is 15mg, to put it in perspective one dried apricot contains 16mg. Two thirds of Australian children react to sulphites, which are increasingly found in our food. Australia has the highest levels of sulphites in dried fruit of anywhere in the world. The consumption level per child of dried fruits is extremely high, and children are consuming as much as three times the recommended daily intake on a regular basis.
Nitrates - (250-252) are found in processed and cured meats such as ham and other deli meats regularly used in sandwiches. Symptoms include hyperactivity, behavioural problems, asthma, headaches, dizziness and are possible carcinogens. They are banned in Australia for use in food intended for consumption by infants and young children; however products that contain nitrates do not carry any warnings alerting this.
Synthetic Antioxidants B310-32 320, 321 and 385. 320 represents Butylated Hydroxy-Anisole (BHT) which is a petroleum derivative that retards spoilage due to oxidation, often found in edible oils and fats. It is not permitted in food for infants, can provoke allergic reactions, trigger hyperactivity and has concerns over carcinogenic and estrogenic effects. It is not permitted for use in foods for infants and young children in Australia and banned for use in Japan. However it is found in many popular snack bars marketed to children, in the leading brand of peanut butter, and in many other everyday items such as mayonnaise.
Food suggestions to give your child the best chance of learning
There are endless food choices available for lunch boxes. It can sometimes be difficult to decide which foods are healthy choices.
Healthier choices do exist; parents should look in the health food section of supermarkets, taking care to always read the ingredients list as claims can be confusing and misleading.
Dried fruit unless it’s organic, usually contains a high level of sulphur dioxide preservative (220). There are a few exceptions available without 220, such as natural sultanas and dried cranberries, but it’s important to always check the ingredients list as it may vary between brands.
Fresh is best, otherwise tubs of fruit in natural syrup or pureed fruit pouches.
Processed fruit bars (220 plus artificial colours & flavours), Muesli bars containing dried fruit (220 plus additives), and Cereal bars – these often contain additives, so again, ingredients must be checked carefully. Be aware of fruit bars and bites that claim 100% fruit, they often contain 220.
Popcorn, the supermarket varieties often have artificial flavours, colours, flavour enhancers and anti-caking agents. Flavoured Chips, flavoured Corn Chips and extruded snacks such as Twisties, Cheesels and Burger Rings all contain a variety of flavours, colours and additives.
Popcorn – organic from health food stores or better still, pop your own.
Ajita’s Vege Chips – 100% natural and 40% less fat than regular chips.
Plain or Orginal Chips and Corn Chips only contain potato or corn, oil and salt.
Fillings can be tricky when parents are used to processed meats and vegetable spreads, but with a bit of retraining it’s not so hard.
Processed luncheon meats, vegetable spreads, and peanut butter containing the antioxidant 320. Check for ingredients list for preservatives in bread.
Most vegetable spreads contain preservatives, additives and flavour enhancers.
- Salmon or tuna in brine or spring water – not the flavoured varieties
- Cheese, read the ingredients as some contain preservatives
- Cold meats – home cooked is best that way you can be sure that there are no hidden nasties. Try steaming and shredding chicken breast, mixing through some good quality mayonnaise (such as S&W Real Mayonnaise) and accompany with salad
- Baked beans or bean salad
- Lots of fresh salad ingredients<
- Pasta and rice salads - with lots of raw vegetables
Other foods that are definitely off limits
School lunch treats: pies, sausage rolls, hot dogs, mini pizza, nuggets, processed chicken, instant noodles and cup-a-soup.
Cold Treats: Coloured and flavoured ice cream and icy poles.
Drinks: Sports and energy drinks, soft drinks, cordial.