Back to School Food: The Illusion of Choice

by Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

Fifty-six million. That’s how many students are expected to attend elementary through high school in the U.S. this fall.(1) Just think of all those empty lunch boxes waiting to be filled!

Stop at any supermarket and you’ll likely find an almost overwhelming assortment of back-to-school lunch-box options. Labels featuring images of children’s favorite sports stars, cartoon and movie characters will capture kids’ attention, and often start a begging and whining war with parents.

Parents naturally want to delight their children’s taste buds, satisfy hungry tummies and fuel hard-working brain cells with optimal nutrition. But unfortunately, many of those colorful, kid-friendly packages disguise low-nutrient, empty-calorie foods.

For example, on a recent trip to the grocery store, my daughter and I were struck by a towering display of multi-pack, lunch-box-ready snack cakes, cookies, crackers and chips, plus sports and fruit drinks.

Hannah clutched my arm. “Mom! Look at all this junk,” she gasped.

After accompanying me to the nutrition education classroom – a.k.a. the grocery store -- for almost two decades, my children have acquired some “supermarket savvy.”

“Let’s see what really lurks inside these fun-looking packages,” I suggested.

By law, the ingredients in a food must be listed in decreasing order of predominance by weight. On the snack cake boxes, the ingredient labels listed: sugar, corn syrup, flour, and hydrogenated fats – a recipe for childhood obesity.

Sports drinks turn out to be another lunch-box mistake. Advertisers sell us the illusion that sports beverages hold the key to athletic success, and they’re often sold as healthful alternatives to soft drinks. However, these beverages were never intended to wash down a meal. They were originally developed to provide fluid replacement to athletes exercising for over an hour, during, not after play. For everyone else, sports drinks are just another form of tooth-decaying, empty-calorie sugar water. The ingredient label reveals the truth.

Don’t get me wrong. I support the Mary Poppins approach: a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. A little sugar and fat help nutritious foods taste better. Salad dressing on spinach leaves; chocolate syrup in organic milk; or, maple syrup on whole grain pancakes, for example. However, a daily lunch box filled with junk is dangerous to our children’s health.

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