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Reading Between The Labels With Paula Mee

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

- Today we take a nutritional look at sweets

Nutritionist Paula Mee:
BSc., Dip Dietetics., MSc in Health Sciences., Dip Allergy, M.I.N.D.I.

From Galway, Paula graduated from University College Galway with a BSc in Biochemistry. She then completed her postgraduate qualifications in Dietetics and a Masters in Health Science in Leeds Metropolitan University.

Paula has recently been awarded a Diploma in Allergy from Southampton University. She has also completed the British Dietetic Association's Sports Dietitian course. She is a current member and a past president of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute.

Paula Mee, Nutrition Consulting was set up in 2004 and offers organisations an extensive range of services in nutrition, product development, and marketing communications.

As part of her working week she also operates a dietetic and weight management clinic.

Paula is currently on the board of Consumer Foods in Bord Bia. Paula was one of the presenters of RTE TV's Health Squad programme which ran from 2002 to 2006. Paula is the author of Good Food, Great Life 2008 and a co-author of the Health Squad Guide to Health and Fitness 2005. Her website is

Sweets are sweets, we all know you should keep intake to a minimum but it's hard to say no to yourself and the kids. What would you say are the worst aspect of sweets (e.g. what should we look out for)?

. Calories and the obesity problem - we have 300,000 children who are overweight or obese at the moment. This figure is growing by 10,000 every year.
. Sugar and dental cares - many sweets really stick to the teeth and cause tooth decay in children.
. Suspect food additives - such as specific colours which can cause behavioural problems and hyperactivity in children. They can also help to trigger allergic asthma.

A study published in 2007 by researchers at the University of Southampton showed evidence of increased levels of hyperactivity in young children consuming mixtures of the preservative:

Sodium benzoate (found in many sugary soft drinks)
And some artificial food colours:

. Sunset yellow (E110)
. Tartrazine (E102)
. Carmoisine (E122)
. Ponceau 4R (E124)
. Quinoline yellow (E104)
. Allura red (E129)

These colours are used in a number of foods, drinks, sweets, cakes, lollies and ice creams. Quinoline yellow appears in some of the sweets that we will be discussing today. These additives are banned in many countries such as Australia, Sweden and the US. Some of them are derived from coal tar. Coal tar contains 10,000 different chemicals, only 50% of which have been identified. Its origin is anthracite and it is used, among other things, in medication for head lice, psoriasis, soap and heating oil. Preparations with over 5% coal tar are classed as group 1 carcinogens.

The research above, funded by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK and published in The Lancet, showed that children fed a typical intake of these additives were less attentive than children placed on additive-free diets. As a result, the FSA recommended that parents with hyperactive children steer clear of the additives used in the Southampton study. Professor Warner himself believes that all children, regardless of whether they have behavioral problems or not, would benefit from avoiding these colours.

We have chosen five very popular different types of sweets:


What is good & what is bad?

The overall fat content is quite high and the percentage of cocoa is likely to be quite low, so this would be quite poor quality chocolate with a high sugar content to compensate. However, there are no colourings or flavourings in these sweets.

Nutritional Information
Cadbury's Buttons (34g)
Calories 170
Fat 9.6g
Saturates Unknown
Carbs 18.4g
Sugars Unknown

M & M's
What is good and what is bad?
There's nothing good about these! They contain quite a few colours, including Quinoline Yellow, which can cause hyperactivity in children. Both E104 Brilliant Blue and E133 Quinoline Yellow found in these sweets are derived from coal tar.

These sweets are also high in calories, fat, saturate and sugar. The large bag (250g) contains a massive 1210 calories - that's over half of the daily recommended calorie intake for women! It would be quite easy to munch through a bag of these during a film at the cinema, for example, and before you know it, you've consumed 33g of saturated fat and 164g sugar - that's a lot of sugar! An average 10 year old child needs approx 1800 calories per day, 85g of sugar and 20g saturated fat.

Nutritional Information
M & M's
Calories 218
Fat 9.6g
Saturates 5.9g
Carbs 30.6g
Sugars 30g

If your 10 year old ate one bag of these M&Ms a week ,at the end of the year they would be getting 8,528g sugar from these sweets alone. (8.5kg) They would also be eating an extra 62,920 calories they may not necessarily be burning up. These are what we call empty calories because the pack because their nutritional package doesn't include any significant quantities of protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals or phytonutrients.

This number of calories is the equivalent to 210 medium sized bananas plus 350 medium apples plus 350 medium oranges!

Do you recommend plain chocolate over chocolate with covered coatings?
Plain chocolate has more antioxidants and many adults are now developing a fondness for it. If you want to have some chocolate, I would recommend a couple of squares of good quality dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids). This is strong-tasting chocolate so you only need a small amount to get your chocolate fix!

Children unfortunately find it very bitter so ordinary milk chocolate mini bars are a better option than highly coloured sticky sweets with additives.

How bad are colours for you?
As we have seen above, colours can cause allergic reactions and hyperactivity.


Jelly tots
. What is good, what is bad?

The Jelly Tots have no artificial colours or flavours - instead they contain fruit juice. However, they are high in sugar, with 25g in just one tiny packet. The concern here is for dental health. The chewy Jelly Tots are likely to get stuck in between the teeth of little ones, causing even more damage to the tooth enamel and leading to tooth decay at an early age. Also, excess sugar in the diet is stored as fat, so if they are eating lots of sweets, this can be a problem especially if the child is inactive.

Nutritional Information
Rowntrees Jelly Tots 40g
Calories 146
Fat 0g
Saturates 0g
Carbs (TBC)g
Sugars 25.3g

Natural Confectionary Company
. What is good, what is bad?

Again, these have no artificial colourings or flavourings, but their sugar content is high. It would be quite easy to nibble your way through half - or even all of a 200g bag, with half the bag giving you 50g sugar and the whole bag coming in at 100g.

Nutritional Information
Natural Confectionary Company 200g
Calories 590
Fat Trace
Saturates Trace
Carbs 71.1g
Sugars 50.5g

Why is there no fat in these?
Because these types of sweets are mainly sugar based.

What is good, what is bad?

. These claim to have natural fruit juices like the jelly tots, what do you think about this?

Starburst uses natural flavourings and colourings. The colourings used (beta carotene, anthocyanins, chlorophyllin) are from plants.

Again the sugar content is high at 27.5g for only a small packet of sweets (45g). They are lower in fat than the M&M's and don't have any artificial colours or flavours, so they would be a better choice.

Nutritional Information
Calories 181
Fat 3.3g
Saturates 1.8g
Carbs 37.5g
Sugars 27.5g

Overall Conclusion
It's good to see that many companies are now moving away from using artificial colourings and flavours, in favour of natural ones coming from fruit juice and plant extracts. But it's important not to be fooled by the banners proclaiming this on the label. Think of the sugar content - the concern here is tooth decay and lots of calories.

Tooth decay is caused when teeth become coated with plaque, which is a combination of bacteria and small pieces of food. If this plaque isn't removed, the bacteria will break it down and acid will be formed which in turn will dissolve the tooth enamel and this can lead to tooth decay.

Diet is very important in preventing tooth decay. Sugary foods like sweets and fizzy drinks encourage bacteria to produce acid quickly. Any sweet or sticky foods that remain in the mouth for a long time are particularly bad. Also drinking sweet drinks from bottles over a long time between meals will cause damage to teeth.

Is there any sweet you would recommend?
. Plain or milk chocolate, mini bars.
. Small bags of jellies just after a meal without the artificial colours and additives where possible.
. Good brush of the teeth before bed!

Paula Mee