Food & Nutrition

10 Unhealthy Ingredients Hiding in Your Kid’s Lunch

Even when you think you’re packing your child the healthiest lunch that they’ll actually eat, these sneaky and harmful ingredients might be lurking.


Red Washington apple at the farmer market, fresh and juicyMaliwan Satthapiti/Shutterstock

This is certainly one of the last ingredients you’d think could wind up in your kids’ food. However, traces of lead are found in fruit juices, mixed fruit, apples, pears, baby foods, and vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes, according to the FDA. “Lead has been found to cause behavioral problems such as hyperactivity, aggression, and inattention as well as lower IQ,” warns Otoniel Santiago, RD, clinical dietitian with the Get Up & Go program at Children’s Health. To lower your child’s consumption of lead, Santiago recommends serving up foods that will block lead absorption, such as turnip greens, collard greens, canned salmon, and dairy products. “These are high in calcium, and calcium and lead compete for the same absorption sites in bones; the more calcium available, the easier the win for calcium,” says Santiago—and the less lead your child will absorb. “Additionally, iron-rich foods like red meats, beans, and lentils, when taken with foods high in vitamin C, can help with the absorption of iron and further block the absorption of lead.” Some examples of foods that are high in vitamin C are tomatoes, oranges, bell peppers, strawberries, and watermelons.


Granola bars on wooden backgroundAlena Haurylik/Shutterstock

Most kids can’t seem to get enough sugary foods. Parents may try to limit their kids’ exposure by eliminating sweets like cookies and ice cream, but that may not be enough, explains Jessica Tosto, MS, RD, clinical coordinator of nutrition and dietetics in the College of Health Professions at Pace University. Sugar is added to many food items that most people would never imagine it could (or should) be in, from ketchup and bread to snack chips and granola bars—even processed meats have sugar added to them. “One prime often overlooked example is yogurt, especially fruit-flavored varieties which contain about 18 grams of sugar,” she says. Instead of serving sugar-sweetened drinks like soda and juice, she says, try choosing plain (not vanilla) yogurt and jazzing it up with ripe banana slices and blueberries, sliced almonds, or walnuts and raisins and ¼ teaspoon of vanilla extract. Here are more sneaky sources of added sugar you don’t realize you’re eating.

Saturated fat

blueberry and chocolate muffins in paper cupcake holdergresei/Shutterstock

“Solid fats like the kind contained in red and processed meat, fried foods, milk and cheese, butter, pastries, and cakes increase an individual’s risk for heart disease later—kids included,” says Natalie Digate Muth, MD, a pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. If your child—like most—can’t seem to get enough cheese pizza or the pre-packaged American cheese and processed meat slices, she recommends substituting healthier options such as lean meats and veggies.

High-fructose corn syrup

Top of red open soda canDarioZg/Shutterstock

This sweetener is added to many foods and beverages. However, Tosto explains that high–fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has a different ratio of fructose to glucose, so it is actually even sweeter than sugar. “It’s also much cheaper, so it is added to numerous food items in the U.S. and is the primary caloric sweetener in sodas,” she says. “While the FDA and the American Medical Association (AMA) maintain that there is no definitive evidence that high-fructose corn syrup is worse for your health than regular sugar, honey, or other traditional sweeteners, many other researchers theorize that there may be a link between rising rates of obesity and the increased consumption of HFCS since the 1970s.” Instead, parents should serve only 100 percent fruit juice to their kiddos (and even that should be given sparingly). Additionally, Tosto recommends adding cut up fruit like strawberries, orange slices, peaches, berries or cucumbers with mint or lime to water or plain seltzer.

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