"Mummy, can I have Chocopie in my lunch box tomorrow?" asked my son on the way back from school. For the uninitiated (I doubt there is any such parent), Chocopie is two slices of cake with a marshmallow filling coated with a chocolate glaze. My 4-year-old son is sharp enough to notice that the homemade muffin or a piece of chikki that makes an appearance in the lunchbox every once in a while doesn't have half the glam-factor of Chocopie. I realised that giving him the "No, because I said so" spiel would only make him crave it more. I'd have to explain to him that what he was asking for in his lunchbox belonged to the 'treat' category and not for everyday lunchboxes. But this incident got me thinking about how sugar became such an intrinsic part of our lives.
From being a wild grass that grew in the South Pacific in 8000 BC, to being an expensive commodity, to becoming one of the main reasons for transatlantic slavery beginning in the 16th century, lasting well over 300 years, to finally becoming an integral part of everyday life, sugar sure has come a long way. From being something sparsely available to something that almost the whole world is addicted to, the life cycle of sugar over the last 10,000-odd years is quite fascinating.
Until the 19th century, sugar was still considered a status symbol, which is why its use was reserved for festivals and special family occasions. It's interesting to note how this tradition has stuck even today, when festivals (irrespective of the religion), birthdays and similar celebratory occasions are incomplete without sweet-somethings. This, despite the fact that we have easy access to sugar and it's no longer an expensive commodity.
If you study your child's daily diet, you'll find several hidden sources of sugar. Right from the malted drink mix that goes into their morning milk, to breakfast cereals, to the bread; everything comes spiked with sugar. You'll be shocked to notice that sugar is often the first ingredient listed in the food label in kids' drink mixes. The order matters because the listing is usually in the order of highest percentage constituent; and if sugar is listed first, it means that it is the main ingredient. Talking about breakfast cereals, the chocolate variation of a popular brand is being advertised on kids' channels as equivalent to eating rotis for breakfast. What it doesn't say is how the cereal comes with 34g of sugar/100g! I'm surprised that consumers are so blatantly being allowed to be misled on national television, coaxing parents to feed their kids a bowl of sugar for breakfast and telling them that it's good for them.
The other source of hidden sugar is juice. I know many parents who feel happy about giving their kids juices instead of colas, which I do agree with somewhat, because almost ANYTHING is better than colas. But the sad fact is that even the juices that say 'no added sugar' are full of sugar, from the fruit itself. To see how misleading this is, a 100% grape juice of a popular brand, with no added sugar has 15.9 grams of sugar/100 ml. Compare this to the guava fruit beverage of the same brand that has 15 grams of sugar/100 ml. Kids don't need fruit juices for good health, it's only to validate and quell their pester power. Give them the whole fruit instead-it comes with a ton of other nutrients including fibre and a fraction of the sugar, because kids cannot eat 6 oranges at a go.
Granola bars are the other 'in' thing in healthy eating these days. You'll find them in the gym bags of fitness enthusiasts or in the pockets of older kids that practice sports after school hours. Sometimes, parents give them to their kids as an on-the-go healthy snack. The bars are promoted using a variety of adjectives. You'll often find them being advertised as high-energy, high-fibre, high-protein, low-carb and so on. Most of them contain added sugars, saturated fats and some even contain trans fats. A far healthier (and cheaper!) option is to carry a fruit and a handful of nuts.
But it is undeniable that sweet food is addictive. Why blame kids, even full-grown adults can often not resist the lure of that one extra bite of chocolate or one more sliver of cake. The question is why? What is it about sugar that we can't seem to get enough of it? The dopamine receptor in our brain needs to be switched on in order for us to experience pleasure. Sugar and similar stimulants accelerate the process of dopamine secretion, which in turn acts on the receptor and triggers the happy sensation. Research shows that people that are addicted to sugar have fewer receptors, thus needing the extra stimulation (read: extra sugar) to switch them on.
So how to we retrain those taste buds? Definitely, it is a gradual process. And a lot of it involves the entire family, because kids don't accept the different-rules-for-different-people policy. Phase out the processed, pre-packaged, ready-to-eat stuff in your kitchen and refrigerator shelves gradually. Start your child's day with a high-protein, high-fibre breakfast like an egg on whole-grain toast with a sprinkling of dried herbs. Choose a low or no-sugar cereal and use a sprinkling of cinnamon powder for a natural sweet flavour. Activate their other taste buds and give them food diverse in flavours. After being on a high-sugar diet, naturally sweet foods like figs, apples, beets will not be as appealing, but gradually they will adapt. Instead of giving them a blanket 'no' for an answer, try sitting them down and explain the reason behind the refusal. This will teach them how to make good food choices of their own in the future. It is, of course, an exercise in patience and perseverance. But the rewards are many. Although the motive may be raising a child with healthy food habits, within weeks you will see that the entire family has been steered to better overall health.