How much sugar is really in your child's lunchbox?
A school lunchbox packed with yoghurt, dried fruit and nuts, a cereal bar and an orange juice has more sugar in it than one packed with so called "no-no" foods, a Waikato Times investigation has found. But that does not mean you should be filling your shopping trolley with junk food, a nutritionist says.
A Times investigation found a school lunch comprising the foods above, had more sugar in it than one containing chocolate, fizzy drink, a jam sandwich and a packet of chips.
The worst offender may come as no surprise: a 350-millilitre bottle of orange juice contains 34 grams of sugar, 1g less than a 355ml can of lemonade.
But the other components all add up.
A tub of berry yoghurt had 16.9g of sugar, while a multigrain cereal bar which boasted a Heart Foundation Tick was more than a quarter sugar with 9.4g in a 35g bar. Compare this with a jam sandwich and a fun-size chocolate bar, and there is a bit of a difference.
A sandwich with two pieces of white toast-slice bread, margarine and strawberry jam weighs in at 9.4g of sugar while a 12g chocolate bar has 8.1g.
A fruit and nut mix, a "nutritious super snack from nature" and which features a slogan claiming it is "for your heart", had 9.4g of sugar per 30g serving while a packet of potato chips had 0.2g per 40g. But this is not to say you should be sending fizzy and chips along to school. It was all about fresh fruit and vegetables, nutritionist Bronwen Anderson said.
A recent survey, commissioned by 5+ A Day to find out about Kiwis' fruit and vegetable eating habits, found about a third of New Zealanders ate the recommended five or more pieces of fruit and vegetables a day, with dinner being the meal where the most fresh produce was eaten, Ms Anderson said.
But a lunchbox was a perfect place to be creative and add some nutrition, she said. "The more colours in your lunchbox, the more antioxidants and vitamins and minerals you get."
A perfect lunchbox for her would contain a wholemeal sandwich or wrap filled with fresh vegetables, a bottle of water, some fruit and some vege snacks such as carrot sticks and a low-fat dip.
"A sandwich or wrap is a great way to get an extra serving of vegetables.
"Jazz up a ham or chicken sandwich with sliced apples, beetroot, snowpeas and rocket." Ms Anderson said it was easy to look at "natural-looking" packaging and assume it was healthy but people were starting to wise up to marketers. "I think parents are beginning to become aware of it."
Hamilton primary school principal Shane Ngatai said his Rhode St School would not police lunchboxes but hoped children and families would take to heart the school's healthy eating philosophy. "We've made a very determined and deliberate approach to providing a healthy model of eating.
"We grow our own food at school and the kids harvest it to make their lunches." Lunches filled with highly processed sugars took children out of the learning environment and was detrimental to their schooling, he said.
"It's an energy burst that then leaves them wanting 20 minutes, 30 minutes later, so their brains aren't engaged in the learning. They're drifting off, either yawning or feeling tired because that energy is gone so you get disengagement from learning."
Some research debunked the association between sugar and hyperactivity in children but Mr Ngatai said that as a father and a teacher, he had seen a "definite change in behaviour". "I think minimising the amount of sugar kids have is the most positive step you can take."
But it was not just children who should be cutting down on the sugar, Ms Anderson said, as there were plenty of benefits for adults from packing their own lunches full of fresh produce.
It included the low cost along with health benefits and setting a good example for children.
She noted parents should be extremely aware of what they were putting in children's lunchboxes as they were shaping their futures.
"You're training your kids for life, you're setting their habits."
The Heart Foundation wants to limit the amount of sugary drinks and added sugar consumed, and national nutrition adviser Delvina Gorton said it supported the development of school lunchbox guidelines. "We know that high intakes of added sugar and sugary drinks impact on risk factors for heart disease like body weight, but we are also starting to see new evidence of a direct effect of added sugar on increased risk of heart disease," she said.
School lunches should fuel children's activity levels, she said and be low in saturated fat, salt and sugar.