Is The War On Sugar Stopping Children Eating More Fruit And Veg?

02/09/2016 11:14 | Updated 02 September 2016

All parents endeavor to do the best they can for their children's nutritional health. In the struggle against obesity and poor nutrition it is easy to feel as though we are fighting a losing battle because the spotlight on what is healthy and what is not keeps changing. In the 1970s and 1980s, fats were indiscriminately boycotted; including the healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in vegetable oils, avocados, nuts and seeds.[1] In the 1990s, eggs were the cholesterol laden villains relegated to the dietary blacklist. While their reputations have since been rehabilitated, with avocados and poached eggs back on the kitchen table; today we face a new nemesis: sugar.

The fact that health messaging is so confused, and even contradictory, is not part of a deliberate attempt by experts to mislead consumers. And, with something as important as children's health at stake, it is not surprising that in the face of such uncertainty parents might opt for indiscriminate elimination. It is beyond doubt that reducing children's consumption of refined sugars is advisable. And yet, in the same way that healthy fats were tarnished with the same brush as their saturated counterparts, the result of abolishing sugar in its entirety has contributed to a shocking statistic that leaves a sour taste.

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey has revealed that 91% of children are currently failing to meet the recommended target of five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. [2]

According to the World Health Organisation, a healthy diet includes "at least five portions, or 400g, of fruit and vegetables per day."[3] Not only does fruit juice contribute towards this target [4] but new analysis of data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) indicates that fruit juice drinkers are more the 42% likely to meet the 5 A Day recommendation.[5] And yet, we are simultaneously instructed by the media that, because it contains naturally occurring sugar, fruit juice is to be entirely avoided.

Parents invariably find themselves in a stalemate situation. The solution? As always, common sense is an essential resource.

Getting children to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day can be challenging. Recognising that pure fruit juice can help is an important first step. The best approach is to consume fruit juice in moderation. Yes, fruit juice contains sugar, but the sugars in 100% fruit juice are only those that are naturally occurring in the fruit from which it is juiced.[6] A 150ml glass a day provides a high source of vitamin C and a source of folate and potassium.[7] It is an easy and tasty way for children to get one of their 5 A Day portions, especially for fussy eaters, and it can also help children become accustomed to the taste of fruit and vegetables, helping lead to long-term positive food choices.


Below are five additional healthy hacks to help you incorporate more portions of fruit and vegetables into your children's diet:

1. Carb swap: There are endless variations for replacing or half replacing starchy carbohydrate foods with veg, including courgetti, cauliflower rice, kale noodles, butternut squash tagliatelle, use cabbage leaves for lasagne sheets, or try celeriac for a mash topping or a pizza base, experiment with different types to see what works for you. Another option is to use slices of beef tomatoes or long strips of cucumber instead of crackers and add toppings like hummus, guacamole and cheese, do the same with lettuce leaves to use for wraps instead of tortillas or grilled Portobello mushrooms for scrambled eggs instead of toast.

2. From meat to mushrooms: Look to mushrooms as a meat substitute, or use half and half. They work brilliantly to give the same texture and add a subtle flavour. For instance, finely chop 4-5 large mushrooms and use with mince to make a bolognaise sauce or chilli con carne. You can also cut them into chunks to use along with diced chicken for stir frys or casseroles.

3. Love your leftovers: Don't be too hasty to chuck away just past it veg lurking in the bottom of the fridge, use a bag of mixed leaves to make pesto with lots of olive oil, pine nuts and basil, finely chop tomatoes that are no longer firm to make a spicy salsa or roast a wrinkly aubergine with lots of garlic and mash to make a dip. If you have a bunch or bananas turning brown in the fruit bowl, simply peel and chop and set on a tray and place in the freezer. Once frozen, you can whizz in the food processor to make a creamy banana 'ice cream'.

4. Bake it in: Cook prunes or dates in a splash of water to make a puree and use as substitute for sugar in some baking recipes. It will work in things like chocolate brownies or fruit cake. You can also use mashed avocado instead of butter in some recipes and add grated apple, carrot or courgette to cakes and muffins to keep them moist.

5. Classics with a twist: Jazz up rice, quinoa or couscous with pomegranate seeds, cranberries or dried apricots or add a few handfuls of frozen berries to yogurt or porridge and keep in the fridge overnight. The berries will 'melt' into the yogurt or porridge, swirl through before you eat, no need for added sugar. You could also make Bircher Muesli with orange juice, another way to work in a nutritious portion of vitamin c packed juice!



[2] National Diet and Nutrition Survey: results from Years 1 to 4 (combined) of the rolling programme for 2008 and 2009 to 2011 and 2012 From Public Health England and Food Standards Agency First published:14 May 2014

[3] WHO, 2014, Fact sheet N°394. Accessed online:

[4] As stated by EUFIC (European Food Information Council) "On average, a portion of fruit is equivalent to an 80g serving. One portion of fruit is, for example...A glass of 100% fruit juice"(Source: Accessed on: February 2, 2015). Throughout Europe, national authorities recognise this. For example, in the UK 100% fruit or vegetable juices/smoothies count as one portion in 5 a Day (Source: NHS UK. 5 A DAY: what counts? Accessed online: Accessed on: November 27, 2014)

[5] Fruit juice consumption is associated with intakes of whole fruit and vegetables, as well as non-milk extrinsic sugars: a secondary analysis of the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) by S. Gibson and C.H.S. Ruxton

[6] As defined by the AIJN: "100% fruit juice contains naturally occurring sugars that are also present in the fruit" (Source: AIJN Frequently Asked Questions,
Accessed on: September 29, 2014)

[7] Commission Regulation (EU) 432/2012 of 16/05/2012

Dr Sarah Schenker is currently working with the British Fruit Juice Association