How much sugar is in your child's lunchbox?

Hidden sugar: uncovering the masterfully disguised sugar items in your child's lunch.
Hidden sugar: uncovering the masterfully disguised sugar items in your child's lunch.  Photo: Getty

All around the country kids set off to school with their lunchboxes full of sugar. This sugar is masterfully disguised in the cute single servings that don Disney inspired cases everywhere: fruity low-fat yoghurt, muesli bars, tiny boxes of dried fruit and organic juices. It's easy for these  convenience foods to add up to 40 teaspoons of sugar – in one lunchbox!! Just ask That Sugar Film director Damon Gameau.

In the name of health and research, Gameau took on the challenge to eat 40 teaspoons of sugar everyday for two months as a way to show people how much sugar is actually in packaged foods.

On his last day of filming, he ate all 40 teaspoons in one sitting. His "meal" consisted of organic apple and blackcurrant juice, sesame snaps, two tiny fruit bars, organic sultanas, a muffin bar, fruity bites, a fruit jelly pack and a jam sandwich.

"The last meal was for all the people out there, especially parents, who are led to believe they are doing the right and healthy thing for their children. They are making an effort yet are horribly let down by the lack of integrity in marketing and packaging strategies," Gameau says in his blog.

Gameau wants to educate everyone on the dangers of excess sugar but he's particularly keen to get the message across to children.

"I have a really good understanding of what sugar does. Now the exciting part is sharing that with people, especially kids and schools," he says.

That Sugar Film's school screening program begins in term two. As well as playing the movie at schools, kits that include a comprehensive study guide, interactive activities, an app and special bonus items will be provided. Gameau hopes the program will teach the next generation that they can still enjoy foods without sugar.

"If we can get to the kids early and get them to enjoy other products that aren't full of sugar then we have a chance at turning around our health problems," he says.

Health problems like type two diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease and obesity. The National Health and Medical Research Council reports that 25 percent of Australian children are obese. But obesity is not the only consequence of excess sugar.

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Phoebe Murphy's daughter was four when she started to complain of stomach pains. 

"When she'd eat sugary food I'd spend hours rubbing her belly. Even when she was asleep, she was constantly moaning and curling into a foetal position," she says.

After several doctor appointments and tests that came back with no conclusion, Murphy says it was mother's intuition that prompted her to cut sugar, including limiting processed foods, from her child's diet.

And the results were encouraging. Not only did reducing her sugar intake resolve her stomach pain, it dramatically changed her behaviour.

"After eating sugar, she'd be hypo. She'd lose her judgement and ability to see consequences. She'd be bouncing off the walls and have trouble focussing and listening," explains Murphy.

"Eliminating sugar gave me back my healthy daughter. It changed her tummy, skin and behaviour in a positive way. She's been mostly sugar-free for three years now."

Children are more sensitive to the rush and crash that sugar causes because of their relative body size says That Sugar Film's contributing naturopath and nutritionist Sharon Johnston.

"The sugar hits their bloodstream fast and after a sugary snack they can quickly become very loud, have difficulty focusing, not listen to instruction or even become more aggressive in their game playing," she says.

Changing a child's diet may not be easy but it is doable. The key, says Johnston, is to do it slowly and make it fun.

"If their taste buds are used to having processed and sugary foods,  healthier foods may be unappealing because they just taste so different," she says. "However, taste buds do adapt so weaning off the processed sugar with some naturally sweetened treats is always a good place to start. Make it fun by getting them to help in the kitchen – bake some low sugar cookies or make brightly coloured smoothies with spinach, banana and yoghurt."

Packing a daily lunchbox without the convenience of packets can be challenging. Johnston suggests these lunchbox friendly ideas:

  • Mountain bread wraps with hummus, grated carrot and avocado.
  • Drained tinned chickpeas with carrot and apple slices
  • Babybel cheese and apple slices
  • A small pot of natural full fat yoghurt with toasted seeds or homemade low sugar berry compote
  • Sliced grilled chicken and cherry tomatoes
  • Small pot of guacamole with rice cakes
  • Mini egg and vegetable frittatas – make them in muffin cases so they're easy to eat
  • Homemade muesli bars made with rolled oats, grated apple, shredded coconut, seeds, honey or rice malt and coconut flour

Special event screenings of That Sugar Film start March 1. Go to www.thatsugarfilm.com for tickets and details.