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8 unhealthy ingredients that could be hiding in your kids' lunch

Dara Smith

It's back to school season, and that means back to packing lunches for your growing kiddos. But, your go-to lunch choices might be hiding some unhealthy ingredients.

While it's not always possible to pack a perfectly healthy lunch every day of the week, it's worth knowing which sneaky, unhealthy ingredients and health risks to watch out for.

Sugar is in a lot of pre-packaged snacks.

To reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, and increased blood pressure, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends children consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugar per day. While sodas, pastries, and candies might seem like obvious snacks to skip, other lunchtime treats also contain significant quantities of sugar.

Brooke Alpert, RD, and author of "The Diet Detox," told INSIDER, "A lot of the packaged foods and yogurts can appear as 'healthy' options but in fact are not. Instead, they are loaded with sugar. Labels are misleading. Many snack bars can say 'made with whole grains,' but really have more sugar than fibre."

Alpert recommended always reading the nutrition label when grocery shopping and selecting products with low, or no, sugar content.

When fixing basic meals like a classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Alpert added, "It's important to think of the sugar content in a lot of simple foods. Think peanut butter or SunButter - those don't need sugar especially if you're using jelly on top of them. That should be sweet enough. My daughter loves a natural peanut butter sandwich with sliced strawberries on it instead of jelly - this way we have protein and no added sugars."

Artificial sweeteners could be hiding in drinks and snacks.

Sugar isn't the only sweetener linked to obesity. According to a recent study conducted by Experimental Biology, the overconsumption of sugar substitutes can yield similar results. As noted in Time magazine's "The problem with sugar-free kids," over 85,000 frequently purchased foods contain six Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved high-intensity sweeteners.

Time explained, "Many parents don't even know all the products that artificial sweeteners are in. Nearly half of waters (both plain and flavored) contain them, as well as more than a third of yogurts."

Although experts agree more research is needed to validate claims that sugar-free foods are dangerous, most suggest moderation as the preferred method for sweet snacking.

Some lunch choices are packed with sodium.

As reported by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC), nine out of 10 US children consume more sodium than the recommended daily dosage.

Rather than cramming lunches with high-salt items like cheese, cold cuts, pretzels, crackers, and milk, the CDC advises parents to opt for naturally low sodium snacks like simply prepared meats, unsalted nuts, fresh produce, or reduced-sodium versions of their kids' favourites.

Food additives are often used to preserve food.

On their healthychildren.org website, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), revealed over 10,000 FDA-approved additives are often used to preserve, package, or modify common foods. However, the AAP's "Food Additives and Child Health" policy indicated a correlation between additive consumption and developmental, hormonal, and weight challenges in children.

Such additives include synthetic artificial food colours, commonly found in processed foods and beverages like fruit juices, and nitrates/nitrites (often used in processed meats, fish, and cheese).

The AAP advised parents to purchase fresh or frozen products and avoid processed foods whenever possible.

Phthalates are typically found in packaging.

According to CNN, "Phthalates are potentially harmful chemicals found in hundreds of consumer products, including perfumes, hair sprays, shampoos, and the plastics used in food processing and packaging."

According to the piece, scientists believe there could be a connection between phthalate exposure and behaviour problems, hormonal disruptions, childhood obesity, cancer, and a host of other conditions.

The story also examined a study published by Environment International - indicating an increase in phthalate levels of adolescents who dined at cafeterias and restaurants.

Ami Zota, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University and a leading author on the study, told CNN the increase was likely due to plastic-softening additives called plasticizers found in mass food preparation products like plastic gloves and food tubing.

One way to avoid this could be packing lunches at home to avoid cafeteria food as often as possible

Beware of bacteria.

Even the most wholesome lunches can fall victim to bacteria exposure when sending them off to school with your children. In "How to keep your kids' lunches from making them sick," HuffPost reported that food left at room temperature for an extended period could trigger foodborne illness.

The article featured safe preparation tips from Rebecca Dittmar, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service program specialist, which include packing in the morning before school, filling lunch boxes with ice packs, and cleaning storage items immediately after use.

Heavy metals could be harmful over time.

Consumer Reports (CR), the nonprofit product rating organisation, revealed a 50-product analysis that indicated alarming levels of arsenic, cadmium, and lead in snack foods, produce, and prepared entrées.

While the evaluation focused mainly on toddlers and babies, it indicated that chemical exposure could be harmful to children (and adults) over time - citing potential health risks such as cognitive problems, behavioural issues, cancer, and other ailments.

The tests noted that products containing brown rice or sweet potatoes were more likely to have elevated levels of heavy metals and organic foods were equally at risk. While CR challenged manufacturers to actively limit the heavy metal content in their products, the organisation suggested parents limit their child's intake of chocolate and be weary of fruit juices.

Trans fats can be found in processed foods.

According to the American Heart Association, consuming trans fats increases the chance of developing heart disease, strokes, and type 2 diabetes. Despite the dangers, food companies often use trans fats to add taste and texture at a low cost.

Fried foods, baked goods, and margarine are common carriers of trans fats and hydrogenated oils. The AHA suggested scanning the nutrition facts for trans fats and the ingredients list for "partially hydrogenated oils" in processed foods.

But, don't stress too much packing sugary snacks and juice in your kid's lunch box now and then isn't the end of the world. Alpert, a mum herself, emphasised the importance of keeping the data in perspective.

"Parenting isn't about perfection. It's just about doing the best you can," she advised.

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