21 February 1996

MOTHER USUALLY

KNOWS BEST

Today there is more information available about child nutrition than ever. Mothers are bombarded with statistics or scare headlines about the effects of on their children – but is the result confusion? asks Tessa Gates

A WELCOME feeling of déjà-vu came over me at the Food, Children and Health Conference. It seems that research shows what our grandmothers instinctively knew: Breast feeding is best, and red meat is important in the diet if a child is to get enough iron for good health.

Unfortunately the wisdom of generations has to be researched for anyone to believe it today. Parents confidence has been undermined to the point where the "expert" rather than mother knows best and traditional eating patterns have been rubbished by the plethora of health scares that fill the media. The speakers at this Baby-Organix sponsored conference all felt that "scares" did more harm that good when it came to public awareness about food and nutrition.

I would go further and say that it is time people received reasoned information, not pressure, on health and parenting. Do we really need lobby groups who say boycott baby-formula manufacturers, brook no argument that "breast is best," and claim there is no need for tins or jars of weaning food for babies? Are they helpful?

This one completely ignores the fact that for some mothers breast feeding does not come easily. A hungry crying baby and a sense of failure makes an unhappy start to motherhood without being made to feel guilty for resorting to bottle feeding.

Weaning, too, takes more thought than merely mashing a portion of the meal the rest of the family is having, and where are the domestic science classes at school that used to teach nutrition and cookery skills?

Heather Paine of the Infant and Dietetic Foods Association stated that adult foods are unsuitable for infants, either because they are nutritionally inappropriate with too much salt or fibre and not enough fat or protein; or because they contain additives which are not permitted in commercial baby foods. Commercial infant foods, on the other hand, are formulated to meet the changing needs of infants and well-established nutritional guidelines.

Of course cynics will say this is what you would expect to hear from a spokesperson for the baby food industry. But how many of them are feeling holier than thou while feeding their children on home prepared low fat foods, wholegrain cereals and white meat in the mistaken belief that this is a healthy diet for tots? Rather a lot it would seem given the results of the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, the most detailed study of pre-school children in Britain ever undertaken. This showed one in eight of the youngest group and one in two of all the children studied were anaemic.

Under-fives

Children under five should not be given skimmed milk, and wholegrain cereals should be limited to improve bioavailability of zinc. Although all meats and fish are a source of iron, red meat is particularly important. It provides haem-iron which helps the body to absorb iron from other sources such as vegetables and cereals.

Lack of iron causes growth to falter, increases susceptibility to infection and affects appetite and behaviour. Adverse effects on mental development, notably in language skills and body balance have been shown to be irreversible.

Red meat and greens were foods many of us were urged to eat when we were children to make us "grow big and strong." Children still need these today, yet the fact seems to have disappeared under warnings linking red meat to heart disease in adults and to the unproven health horrors of BSE.

Reports of pesticide residues on vegetables hardly encourage parents to insist that children eat more greens. Residue worries were discussed at the conference and it was said that as the one to five-year age groups consume large amounts of food and water, they encounter more pesticides and at a time where they can do most harm. 80% of peaches, apples and celery have pesticide residues, and even after washing and peeling, 10% have four or more pesticide residues in them.

Rapidly dividing cells in children are more susceptible to carcinogens and many pesticides are known to be cancer causing. While "safe" levels of pesticides are allowed in foods, many delegates were unconvinced that any level is safe for young children. They urged that there should be more support for organic farming so that parents can afford to make the choice for organic foods.

Plenty of food

In Britain we are in the happy position of having plenty of food available for our children, and wealthy enough to run conferences to discuss it. Each generation is taller and heavier than the last despite being reared on foods that are now fashionably "bad." But the most recent generation is suffering increases in skin diseases, asthma and more which are laid at the door of food allergies. So we are not doing as well on the fashionably "good" foods as we might expect. I just wish grandmother was still alive to explain that.