What do children eat in schools and kindergartens – and why does it matter?

Most of us realise the importance of eating “real food” for our health and wellbeing rather than indulging on the empty calories, added sugar, fat and refined carbohydrates (such as white bread, pasta or rice). However, what many people don’t know of, is the impact that added sugar might have for our brains and cognitive abilities, our abilities to perceive, remember, understand and learn. In other words, added sugar might take a toll on our academic performance!


There is quite an extensive amount of research done with animals, which indicates that increased added sugar intake can lead to problems in cognitive performance, for example memory and learning. According to some studies, it also seems that these effects are far more concerning when it comes to adolescent animals, which could mean that children or young people are more vulnerable for the effects of added sugar. [1, 2, 3, 4 & 5] It is notable, that there might not yet be enough scientific evidence to make general conclusions like these when it comes to humans, but it certainly gives us something to think about, doesn’t it?


Let us think about children, who are not yet capable to make the distinction between healthy and unhealthy, and even if they did, may often tend to either choose the tastiest option, eat what they are offered or what they have learned to prefer.


Speaking about the importance of learning what is a good, healthy snack or a lunch, did you know that the taste preferences we have seem to have been learned? According to researchers, some of our taste preferences are learned as early as while in our mother’s womb or while being breastfed! According to these studies, what pregnant mothers eat has an influence on the flavour of the amniotic fluid and breastmilk, which is how we learn about different flavours very early. These early life choices (of a mother in this case) can carry a long way in the form of flavour preferences and eventually, in maintaining a healthy lifestyle! It is also established, that children naturally prefer sweeter tastes over the bitter ones, and despite the preferences learned very early in life, children can learn to enjoy healthier choices through constant and persistent availability and diversity in diet. [6 & 7] Some might also be learned habits, for example, growing up, I was told that “water is the only drink for the thirsty”. I truly appreciate my mother’s far-sighted wisdom, as still today, I don’t really enjoy fizzy, sugary drinks that much and rather choose to drink water when I am thirsty. Similarly, a child can learn a habit of enjoying a banana or an apple as a snack vs. a potato chip bag.

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Have you ever wondered, what is offered for children in the places they spend most of their week, in kindergarten or schools?

Unfortunately, most of the world is not like Finland, where all children are entitled to a good quality, healthy lunch every single day in their basic education. In fact, in many countries and schools, children do not receive a proper lunch, or the lunch they get may be crafted with budget rather than quality. In the case they don’t have access to such a lunch, doesn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t get hungry, as learning is challenging work and often hours spent in schools are long.

As a solution, some schools urge parents to pack a lunch for their children or they may have a cafeteria or similar for purchasing snacks or food. Sometimes, this works as a way to have a fund-raiser for a field trip or sports event for instance, by selling products on break, as a snack for the pupils. It seems that too often though, products sold are carbonated, sugary drinks, bags of chips, chocolate bars and so on. What is wrong with these products then? If they are only enjoyed in lesser amounts and on special occasions, there might be nothing wrong with them (please don’t get me wrong, I also love my cake and chocolate occasionally!), but if they enter our daily lives and become a regular habit, there might be a problem.

Perhaps you have also noticed that those potato chips can relief a roaring tummy for a short while, but on a long-term, one ends up being hungry again, sooner than later. This is because they are mostly full of “empty” calories, no nutrients, vitamins or minerals, just pure energy and fast carbohydrates. Most of us are also aware, that the excessive use of added sugar causes weight gain and can lead to several health problems, such as metabolic disorder, life style diseases and so on. Sugar is also very bad for our teeth, as it feeds the bad bacteria in our mouths.

What could be the solution? If you have the power to pack your child’s snack box or lunch, you can make it a good one. Aim for real, unprocessed diet: fruits, berries, wholegrain products instead of refined white flours, real meat vs. processed meat, nuts and seeds instead of candies, water instead of sugary juices or sodas. Read the ingredients lists: If you can’t understand the contents, it might be because it is not real food, but what is sometimes called “food-like-food”: artificial, processed food. I have been surprised many times, as I look at a product seemingly healthy (advertised with words such as “fit” or “diet” and the reality is totally the opposite when I look at the ingredients list. For example, recently I checked a package of “healthy” breakfast cereal: loads of sugar and other, seemingly unnecessary ingredients. I ended up choosing plain oats and mix them with fruits, seeds and nuts. I also make my own muesli. Of course, it is good to bear in mind that sometimes names can be misleading, for example ascorbic acid is in fact vitamin C. However, one can quickly learn a difference between strawberry and artificial strawberry flavour.

If it is not in your hands, what your child can eat, you might still be able to have a say. Could you join the parental boards, meetings and/or contact the principal? Perhaps join forces with other parents who share your concern. There is no need to stop a fundraiser for children to get on a field trip, but there are healthy alternatives to sell too. Perhaps you could come to a compromise and have a coke and chips day on Fridays, if it is necessary.

P.s this article in The Guardian provides great advice for healthy lunch for teachers, but can be used by anyone!

Have you struggled with this issue? Did you find a solution and how?

References:

1. Hsu, T. M., Konanur, V. R., Taing, L., Usui, R., Kayser, B. D., Goran, M. I. and Kanoski, S. E. (2015), Effects of sucrose and high fructose corn syrup consumption on spatial memory function and hippocampal neuroinflammation in adolescent rats. Hippocampus, 25: 227–239. doi:10.1002/hipo.22368

2. Kendig, M. D. (2014). Cognitive and behavioural effects of sugar consumption in rodents. A review. Appetite, 80, 41-54.

3. Molteni, R., Barnard, R. J., Ying, Z., Roberts, C. K., & Gomez-Pinilla, F. (2002). A high-fat, refined sugar diet reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neuronal plasticity, and learning. Neuroscience, 112(4), 803-814.

4. Francis, H., & Stevenson, R. (2013). The longer-term impacts of Western diet on human cognition and the brain. Appetite, 63, 119-128.

5. Noble, E. E., & Kanoski, S. E. (2016). Early life exposure to obesogenic diets and learning and memory dysfunction. Current opinion in behavioral sciences, 9, 7-14.

6. Beauchamp, G. K., & Mennella, J. A. (2009). Early flavor learning and its impact on later feeding behavior. Journal of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition, 48, S25-S30.

7. Mennella, J. A. (2014). Ontogeny of taste preferences: basic biology and implications for health. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 99(3), 704S-711S.