Danger in Your Kids’ Lunchboxes


By Gelyka Ruth R. Dumaraos


A quick look into what kids bring to school for their snacks or lunch shows most likely an array of easy-to-prepare commercial food—baked and fried goodies that are processed, cheap, and have a longer shelf life. They’re tasty too, but no thanks to the trans fats they’re laden with

What parents might not be aware of is that what they prepare for their kids’ lunch at school may actually cause more harm than good.

With unhealthy ingredients and substances still getting into the manufacturing of food and drinks for children, parents should be aware of those which may potentially cause adverse effects when taken repeatedly over a period of time.

One such harmful substance is the artificial trans fats, or trans fatty acids (TFA), present mostly in the food supply.  This includes all-time snack favorites like French fries, donuts, chicken nuggets, pizza, and many others.

Unlike natural trans fatty acids, which can be found in dairy and meat, artificial ones are made and preferred for commercial reasons. For one, they are cheap and are solid at room temperature. It is more stable during deep frying and has an extended shelf life. It is also a substitute for lard or butter.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), TFAs are produced industrially through partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils (PHO). What makes it alarming is that PHO is an ingredient in many food, including margarine, and vegetable shortening. Thus, they are present in fried and baked food and pre-mixed products like pancake and hot chocolate mix. Food sold in the streets, and even in restaurants and fast food chains commonly use TFA for their products too.

Cardiovascular risk

The alarming issue on the use of TFA on certain food products available in the market today is threatening the global health community for its deadly consequences.

Philippine Heart Association (PHA) past president and noted cardiologist Dr. Saturnino Javier says, “Trans fats can raise the bad cholesterol fraction in the blood (or the LDL-cholesterol). Children who are exposed to eating food products with bad cholesterol such as trans fat, can be prone to develop heart disease and stroke, if not now, then later on in their lives.”

Dr. Javier adds that other risk factors present—like sedentary lifestyle (or no exercise), smoking, overweight, strong family history for heart disease, among others, may aggregately affect the health in the long run. TFA also contribute to insulin resistance, which increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Specifically, data from WHO reveals that increased ingestion of TFA increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as coronary heart disease. It then may contribute to the 17.7 million people who die of cardiovascular diseases each year or 31 percent of all global death and overall mortality.

In the Philippines alone, diseases of the heart and the vascular system are the top cause of mortality, accounting for about a third of all deaths, the Department of Health (DOH) reports.

WHO adds that 46 percent of deaths occurred even before the age of 70. This reflects the current state of health where more and more people from the younger generation develop cardiovascular diseases.

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A worldwide call

In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has called TFA a threat to public health and urged food companies not to use TFA on human food products. Two years after, it ordered companies to completely phase out TFA use with 2018 as its deadline. It then extended the deadline until June 18 this year for specified application compliance.

On the other hand, WHO has initiated REPLACE, a guideline on totally removing trans-fatty acids from the food supply. It gives six strategic action to eliminate industrially-produced trans fatty acids. REPLACE stands for Review, Promote, Legislate, Assess, Create, and Enforce.

While there has been a worldwide call to completely eliminate TFA in food through WHO and FDA’s initiative, the Philippines has a long way to go when it comes to eradicating TFAs among consumer food products.

There is no lead agency pushing for a direct policy against artificial trans fats. There are, however, policy opportunities that may signal a green light when it comes to TFA ban. The Senate Bill No. 1813 or the “Trans Fat Prohibition Act” mandates the phase-out of artificial TFA in food facilities, within two years. There is also a proposed excise tax on foods containing industrially-produced TFA at the rate of PhP5.00 per canned or packed product.

TFA alternative

“We should take note that heart disease can affect any age – particularly when the clustering of risk factors is present,” Dr. Javier says. “While age remains a separate factor, it is always prudent to be vigilant about what we and our children eat – even at a young age.”

WHO recommends adults and children to consume a maximum of 10 percent of saturated fat and only 1 percent from trans fats to lower the perils of diseases of the heart. In addition, the maximum fat consumption should not be more than 30 percent of total energy intake to avoid unhealthy weight gain.

“A better alternative, if not taken excessively, is plant-based or vegetable oils, including the polyunsaturated fats,” Dr. Javier adds. “We should always remember that the key message with these dietary guides is to eat everything in moderation.”

Oils rich in PUFAs include safflower oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, fatty fish, walnuts, and seeds.

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Preparing snacks

A healthy snack for a child starts with parents being informed on healthy food choices.

While the Department of Education’s Department Order No. 13, s. 2017 bans all foods with trans fat, regardless of amount, from school cafeterias, the best option for parents to be hands-on in preparing their kids’ meals.

Nutritionist and dietitian Anna Eliza Bartolata says that parents must have a good grasp on what is healthy—especially those which are transfat free.

To know how to veer away from snacks which have transfats, Bartolata advises mothers and guardians preparing for the kids’ snacks to read the labels.

Citing the US Food and Drug Administration’s guidelines for parents on nutrition fact reading she says, “In trying to plans for your kids’ snacks, you must consider the nutrients a certain product will give. Knowing how to check or read food labels will allow you to see if a product has the nutrients your child needs.”

This lets parents choose food that give a higher amount of nutrients and lower in nutrients to get less of, like trans fat, sodium, and sugar.

Twinkle Lacsamana, mother-of-three, takes inspiration from the three basic food groups—Go, Grow, and Glow, when it comes to preparing her kids’ lunchboxes.

She says, “The first factor that I consider is balance – my kids’ baon should be filling but is balanced in terms of nutritional content. Half of their day is spent at school so I make sure that they get as much, if not enough nutrients out of their baon.”

Despite having a busy corporate work schedule, Lacsamana makes sure she prepares her kid’s lunchboxes every school day.

While she gives her child extra money allowance for emergency purposes or when they are still hungry so they can buy in their cafeteria, she sees to it that what she gives is more than enough. She adds, “Most of the days, they didn’t have to spend their money because when I prepare their baon, I always add extra snacks.”

Nutrient-packed food

Having enough nutrients is key in giving the child energy to perform well not only in school but at home as well. “Since a lot of kids tend to eat small portions and easily feel full, it is important to give them nutrient-packed food to help them get the important nutrients,” Bartolata says. “You may put more 2 or more items, in a smaller portion, in the snack box to provide variety in the diet.”

Snack breaks are a way to increase fruit intake and avoid unhealthy food choices, Bartolata shares.  “A lot of kids struggle from eating fruits,” she adds. “Snack times offer a great opportunity to increase access and exposure to these nutrient-dense foods.” Consider serving small portions of fruits can be paired with healthy sandwiches.

For drinks, Bartolata suggests serving 100 percent fruit juice without adding sugar. Refrain from using fruit powders and drinks and always remember to encourage the kids to drink water instead of sugary drinks throughout the day.

When it comes to sources of carbohydrates, whole grain and rice alternatives can add to in the variety in the diet. Examples are baked or fried kamote, homemade oatmeal cookies, homemade baked potato chips, smaller or precut wheat bread, a whole wheat waffle topped with fruits. You may also use wheat bread for sandwiches.

A potato salad and pasta dishes using multicolor of fun shaped noodles may also do the trick. For additional protein source, include nuts like peanuts or mixed nuts during their snack time.

With parents and guardians being aware and informed, children are introduced on healthy food choices which they can adapt until they grow old, without depriving them of their varied taste preferences.

This story was produced under the ‘(Un)Covering Trans Fats Media Training and Fellowship Program’ by

Probe Media Foundation Inc. (PMFI) and ImagineLaw (IL). The views and opinions expressed in this piece are

not necessarily those of PMFI and IL.

“A better alternative, if not taken excessively, is plant-based or vegetable oils, including the polyunsaturated fats”

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