The online version of The Australian recently published a report about a growing movement of parents to ban junk food ads especially on television. The reason? Because “the advertising was undermining their efforts to teach children good eating habits.” Heaven knows I’d like to see something similar in the Philippines, but the question is who will define what junk food is?
In this media-driven generation, kids are rather contentious. This isn’t an age where children simply accept what they are told. They challenge their parents’ statements, not necessarily to be disrespectful, but because they have access to a lot of information that they feel may be genuinely more authoritative and valid than what their parents claim. This especially if the parents are prone to believe old wives’ tales like treating hiccups with a piece of rolled thread on an infant’s forehead.
Things like that do make parents less credible. Hence, the validity of a parent’s claim about what is healthy and unhealthy food becomes suspect when taken against big words used in ads like whole grains, low sodium and low sugar. And these are key words in ad campaigns that food manufacturers spend millions on.
Case in point: Jack â€˜n’ Jill’s Nova multi-grain chips and the Oishi counterpart. The way the ingredients are emphasized, it’s almost as though the bag of chips properly belongs inside a gradeschooler’s lunchbox. Another case in point: Those soda drinks with zero sugar. Wasn’t the sugar content the main objection against soft drinks? Okay, so you have Coke and Pepsi and other soft drinks manufacturers coming out with the diet and zero-sugar versions. Doesn’t that cast doubt on claims about soft drinks being unhealthy?
So, kids complain and engage their parents in debate. For the old schoolers, it’s nothing but disrespect. The less insecure parents, on the other hand, are thankful for small proofs that their kids have brains that they manage to exercise by challenging old beliefs against evidence provided by modern scientific and medical findings.
When it comes to eating junk food, the arguments and counter-arguments are multi-dimensional. When parents say that potato chips are junk food, some kids counter by saying that they are made from real potatos and they cannot be worse than the bowls of peanuts that their parents consumed in their youth.
Is it the oil content that makes potato chips bad? Well, there are baked potato chips in the market. Is it the salt content? Hmmm… for all the bad press that sodium gets, the human body needs salt in order to function efficiently. If the sodium content of potato chips is drastically cut down, will that finally exclude them from the junk food label? Ever seen those baked potato chips with 25 percent less salt on the supermarket shelves?
Then, there are the gray areas. Does the amount of preservatives in processed food affect their categorization as healthy or unhealthy? Are vegetable crisps healthy or are they junk food? They are getting more and more popular today– small pieces of vegetables made crisp by modern food processing, canned or bagged and eaten in very much the same way that one eats potato chips or chocolate-coated wafers.
What about breakfast cereals? The modern healthy breakfast, according to many. Read the fine print on the labels and notice how many artificial food colorings are enumerated. The two boxes of Post cereals sitting on top of our fridge list two artificial food colorings. The packets of Quaker oats list artificial flavorings among the ingredients.
Then, we go to the fast food joints with their notorious fat-laden chicken nuggets, deep-fried chicken and fatty burgers served with mayo (fat!), gravy (sodium and fat!) and ketchup (preservatives!). Does the addition of two slices of tomatos and a few soggy strips of lettuce make burgers healthier? These days, fast foods also serve fresh green salads. Does the inclusion of vegetable dishes in their menu elevate them to the category of non-junk food restaurants?
What about chocolates? My mother made me bring half a dozen bars of chocolate when I took the UPCAT more than two decades ago. The four-part entrance exam lasted from 7 a.m. to 12 noon with no breaks, but eating was allowed. According to my mother, chocolates were the fastest source of energy and I would need energy to last through the half-day exam. It’s a belief shared by the US military during the second world war. M&M’s (they melt in your mouth, not in your hands) were developed for the American soldiers so they could get their energy in these sugar-laden morsels. Healthy idea?
I have my own standards for determining what is healthy and what is not. First, read the food labels and go through the list of ingredients and dates of manufacture and expiration. Second, know that the more processing a food product has undergone, the more nutrients are lost and the more artificial colors and flavors added. Keep consumption down to a minimum. Third, if the product contains more artificial than natural ingredients, stay away from it. Third, if a product has nothing but artificial ingredients, don’t even look at it.
And these aren’t things that only mothers should know about. My husband goes through food labels and nutritional information as much as I do. He scrutinizes more, in fact, since he has developed a serious aversion to artificial food colors.
If you have to argue with your kids about what is junk food and what is not, do your own research. Be more scientific and authoritative than the ads they are exposed to everyday. Rather than being dictatorial, be informed and reason out based on valid information. If you can support your arguments better than the food manufacturers can with their half-truths and lies, you’ll have better chances of winning your kids to your side.