Children can be 'detectives' when it comes to making food choices

February 20, 2004|by LISA TEDRICK PREJEAN

"Mommy, can I have an oatmeal cream pie for breakfast tomorrow?"

My 5-year-old was savoring an after-dinner snack and was planning to enjoy another one the next morning.

"I'm not sure if that would be the best choice for breakfast, dear. Let's look at the food label."

We listened as her 8-year-old brother read the ingredient list and Nutrition Facts.

"It contains shortening, salt and sugar, so I don't think you should eat it," he said, an interesting judgment call from someone who started his day with three pancakes and syrup.

My kids think that because they drink milk and skip butter with pancakes, their breakfast is balanced.

My husband and I keep telling them how tasty "grown-up" cereal can be, but they just pick the fruit out of it and leave the bran behind.


Eventually they'll come around.

I have them all eating wheat bread - even my Cajun-raised husband won't go back to white. (We occasionally have French bread, the only true complement to red beans and rice.)

I figure if I eat a balanced diet, occasionally point them to food labels and talk about making good food choices, they'll think about these things, too.

"It's important to teach kids good food values," says Charles Stuart Platkin, a self-described public health advocate and author of "Breaking the Pattern."

"Parents need to lead by example. How do you expect a child to do something you don't do yourself? Kids will do what you do, especially the younger ones."

In the grocery store, parents often pay attention to the price and value of food but don't compare content, says Platkin, who plans to release another book, "Breaking the Fat Pattern," this year.

It's especially important to weed out the trans fats in our diets, Platkin says.

Trans fatty acids are fats found in foods such as vegetable shortening, some margarines, crackers, candies, baked goods, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, salad dressings and many processed foods, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Web site,

According to the FDA, there is a direct relationship between diets high in trans fat and LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels and, therefore, an increased risk of coronary heart disease - a leading cause of death in the United States.

"The best way to explain it is that they clog your pipes," Platkin says.

To make a trans fatty acid, manufacturers basically take a healthy polyunsaturated fat and blast it with hydrogen gas and a catalyst, Platkin says.

The benefit to a manufacturer? Longer shelf life.

The benefit to your health? None.

According to the FDA Web site, saturated fat and trans fat have bad effects on cholesterol levels. Polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats (such as olive oil, canola oil, soybean oil and corn oil) have good effects.

The words "no trans fat" are beginning to appear on some labels. We'll be seeing more of this leading up to Jan. 1, 2006. Food manufacturers have until that date to list trans fat on the nutrition label.

Until that time, we can teach our children to be nutrition "detectives" by looking at the ingredient list for trans-fat clues.

If a list includes the words "shortening," "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" or "hydrogenated vegetable oil," the food contains trans fat, according to the FDA Web site. Because ingredients are listed in descending order of predominance, smaller amounts are present when the ingredient is close to the end of the list.

You also can look at the Nutrition Facts label and do the math - subtract fats listed from the Total Fat amount. For example, an oatmeal cream pie has 7 grams of Total Fat. The Saturated Fat is 1.5 grams of fat. So, that means other forms of fat make up the remaining 5.5 grams, some of which could be trans fat.

P.S. - Do you ever forget which is the "good" cholesterol and which is the "bad" cholesterol? Here's a tip from Platkin: When you see the "H" in HDL, think "high and good." When you see the "L" in LDL, think "low and bad."

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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