The truth about “healthy” snacks

I find the whole kid snack thing pretty confusing. There was a terrifying program on Channel 4 recently Junk Food Kids: Who’s To Blame?, which basically suggested that “healthy” snacks such as organic cereal bars and fresh fruit are as bad for children’s teeth as chocolate and sweets. The Daily Mail also ran an article about this, under the chilling headline “Middle class parents who’ve ruined their children’s teeth by giving them healthy treats“. I don’t like getting sucked in by the Daily Mail’s scaremongering health stories but when it’s your child …

Almost 26,000 children in England aged between five and nine have been hospitalised for multiple tooth extractions in 2013-14 – that’s the equivalent of almost 500 a week.

Where does this leave us? (apart from not reading the Daily Mail).  I’ve had a go at baking the sugar-free cakes and brownies that feature in the cult healthy cookbooks everyone is so addicted to but the truth is these things cost a FORTUNE to make and Hector would rather eat a box of raisins.

(As an aside, if you’re going to make cupcakes or brownies or chocolate cake, why not make ones that are actually delicious rather than made with all sorts of sugar substitutes? They’re supposed to be treats after all, not something to snack on every day…).

And what do you do about drinks? The jury is out on milk (babies left to suck on bottles of milk can develop cavities) and while I try to limit the amount off fruit juice Hector drinks the truth is he’ll gulp it down much more readily than a glass of water. If I’m not careful he’s  going to have rotten teeth by the time he is four and it will be all my fault.

With this in mind I took him to the dentist and sat there with butterflies in my stomach as his teeth were examined. Thankfully, it’s all good so far, despite the fact he has the occasional lollipop, the odd diluted fruit juice and breakfast cereals that come out of a packet rather than everything-free granola, lovingly homebaked in an Aga.

The dentist did sternly warn me against sugar, though. Her view is that snacking between meals is unavoidable as children need to eat little and often to keep up their blood sugar but parents should offer vegetables, as far as possible, and protein-based snacks such as cheese, which neutralises acid.


If you must give treats, she advises giving them once, followed by a teeth clean, rather than allowing children to graze all day.

With regards to drinks, WATER is the safest option, she said, with diluted fruit juices to be given only as a treat and fizzy drinks to be avoided at all costs. Yesterday I spoke to nutritionist Amanda Hamilton who suggests Vita Coco Kids coconut water as an alternative to water. It’s permitted to be given out in schools due to its low sugar content and high levels of potassium. “Flavoured milks and fruit juices have 50 per cent more sugar than coconut water,” she explains.

She advises parents to set their children a good example with what they eat and drink. “If you’re constantly snacking on chocolate and sweets then of course your children will want them,” she says. “It’s much better for everyone if you go for cheese and oatcakes instead.”

But can we really expect our children to munch on oatcakes and carrot sticks? YES, says Mumfidential’s food and nutrition editor, Mary van der Westhuizen. She believes parents should be more confident that if their child is truly hungry they will eat (within reason) whatever healthy snack is given to them. “You’d be surprised how even the most reluctant children will happily eat vegetables when they’re hungry,” she explains. “Don’t just stop at carrot sticks, try steamed broccoli florets and green beans too. Prepare them at the beginning of the day and whip them out when needed.”

Vegetables are great sources of important nutrients and fibre which means your child will feel fuller in between meals, she says. “And crucially they help their blood sugar levels to stabilise, which is really important if you want to avoid those mood swings that accompany the toddler years…” Here is Mary’s list of snacks that are not as healthy as they appear, and some healthier alternatives.

Foods that are not as healthy as they appear

Fruit fromage frais/ other fruit yoghurts aimed at children (often laden with sugar)

Fruits purees and compotes (you’re better off giving the whole fruit)

Dried fruit (fresh is best)

Fruit juice (often made from concentrate)

Flavoured milks and waters

Processed foods containing refined sugars

Cereals and cereal bars, even if they’re organic!

Milk (decay can occur if its in contact with the teeth for extended periods)

Healthy snack alternatives

All vegetables and low/medium-sugar fruits such as avocado, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, kiwi, apples and pears


Cream cheese

Oatcakes (try them with humous or cream cheese)

Baked sweet potato fries



Homemade brown bread sticks

Homemade popcorn


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