Andrea Mara hears how marketed fruit waters can contain as much sugar as cola and other fizzy drinks, and why the Super Troopers health programme is delivering results.
Many parents feel bombarded with messages about their children’s health — they’re overweight, they’re spending too much time on devices, and they’re eating all the wrong foods.
Even when we listen and try to do our best, we can still get it wrong — as soon as we get them eating a particular breakfast cereal or yoghurt, we find out it’s full of sugar and the last thing we should be feeding our kids.
A case in point is the recent reduction in fizzy drink consumption. A new study carried out by TCD professor David Hevey for Laya Healthcare shows that just 2% of children in Ireland now drink fizzy drinks every day.
However, the report shows there has been a shift to sugary waters, with one in four children drinking ‘fruit-flavoured water’ at least five days a week.
“The trouble is, these fruit-flavoured waters can be similar in terms of sugar to soft drinks,” says consultant dietitian Paula Mee.
She uses a can of cola to illustrate the point. “A can of cola works out at 35g of sugar or 8.75 teaspoons. There was one fruit-water I looked at that contains 29g of sugar, which is 7.25 teaspoons in the same volume. It looks like it’s a water but it’s got nearly as much sugar as cola.”
It’s not just sugar that concerns her. “Fruit waters can contain citric acid which, along with the carbonation, can have effects on dental health,” she says.
“And some have artificial sweeteners, which aren’t really suitable for small kids. People don’t realise there are sometimes colours in them too. There was one drink I looked at and in very small print it said, ‘This may affect your child’s behaviour’.”
Mee feels there should be more transparency in labelling. “The labelling can be very hard to read. I think we need tighter regulations so that it’s clear to the consumer how much added sugar a drink contains or if it has artificial sweeteners.
“The problem also is that people don’t have time to read labels; they’re busy doing the family shop, and some think they’re buying a healthier version of a soft drink, but they’re not.”
It’s worth noting that the study in question was carried out on families participating in Laya Healthcare’s Super Troopers, a free health homework programme for primary school children.
These are families who are actively interested in learning more about health and nutrition, but, like the rest of us, they don’t always get it right.
The survey also found that children are spending more time on devices than outdoors and that one in five of those who participated are overweight or obese.
There was some good news too. When compared to the national average of children as per the Growing Up In Ireland study (GUI), Professor Hevey’s research found that children who took part in GUI were twice as likely to be inactive than those children participating in Super Troopers .
After taking part in the programme, between 25% and 33% of families said they were more active, and 25% said they’re eating more healthily.
Super Troopers sounds like a common sense idea, but how does it work in practice?
Darina Burke, Principal of St Brigid’s Girls National School, Glasnevin, Co Dublin says: “The essence of the programme is that pupils are given health homework. It can vary — it can be physical exercise, it might be written homework, it might integrate with another part of the curriculum that was covered that day, it might be doing jumping jacks.
"The beauty of the programme is that it’s flexible. Teachers decide what to do — they can pick and choose what they want to focus on.”
With so much going on at school, do parents, pupils or teachers see health homework as an extra burden?
“No, they really don’t,” says Burke. “There’s a real shift generally towards focussing on wellbeing in schools, and the three pillars of Super Troopers are physical activity, wellbeing and nutrition — all of these are being taught discretely in school anyway so it just complements the curriculum.
“Parents like that homework is not just reading, writing and maths. It allows for the fact that children learn in different ways.”
And are there tangible benefits? “Like anything that focuses on health and wellbeing, it’s difficult to measure,” says Burke.
“But generally, any area that emphasises physical exercise is going to improve concentration levels and ensure children are more active.”
The Super Troopers programme is not obligatory in St Brigid’s School, Glasnevin. Some teachers follow it throughout the year, while others dip in and out.
Commenting on the findings of his report, Prof Hevey, recommended that health homework should be mandatory for all primary school children.
Paula Mee couldn’t agree more.“I wouldn’t like parents and teachers to be burdened but health and wellbeing are core,” she says. “If you don’t have your health, it doesn’t really matter whether you can do calculus or not.”
Registration for Super Troopers with Laya Healthcare is now open for the next academic year, with capacity increasing to allow more schools to take part. Go to supertroopers.ie/register-your-interest or call 01-5224848
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved