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Published August 05, 2013, 10:00 PM

Snack tracking: More moms checking labels, choosing healthier alternatives for kids’ treats

FARGO -- Rather than pick up an easy snack for her kids at the store, mom Leah Peterson makes her own.

By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM

FARGO -- Rather than pick up an easy snack for her kids at the store, mom Leah Peterson makes her own.

She buys strictly organic food and products that don’t contain genetically modified organisms.

She will go so far as to call food companies to find out whether their products contain GMOs. If she can’t get an answer, she won’t buy the products, she said.

“I read every label. I seek out things that are labeled organic or non-GMO verified,” she said.

Convenience foods like macaroni and cheese, fruit snacks and granola bars seem to be a staple of kids’ lunch boxes, but they contain added sugars, fats, salts, and additives like artificial colors, flavors and preservatives.

Some parents, like Peterson, are doing what they can to give their kids healthy alternatives.

“When it comes to your children, you’re raising them and you’re making these choices for them,” the Fargo mom said. “Without this food being labeled, people just don’t know.”

In the beginning shopping would take a lot longer. Instead of 20 minutes, she’d spend an hour at the store.

It can be intimidating to start being choosier about food selections at first, Peterson said. But she recommends taking it one item at a time.

“I wanted nothing more than to raid my cupboards and throw everything in the garbage and start from scratch,” she said. “That’s what can cause it to be overwhelming.”

Kristen Liebl, a Sanford Health registered dietician, said the big problem with convenience foods typically marketed toward children is they’re higher in sodium, and kids’ diets high in sodium can lead to high blood pressure down the road.

For families who have a hard time cutting down on packaged foods, Liebl recommends serving fruits, vegetables and whole grains with it.

When it comes to organic versus conventional food, Liebl says to pay attention to how far something has traveled. The longer it sits out, the more nutritional value it loses, she said.

Organic local food is nutritionally the best, but a conventional fruit from California might be better than an organic fruit from Argentina. Frozen produce might have better nutrition than something that’s been sitting out a long time, she said. It’s best to buy organic or local meat, she said.

But just because something is organic doesn’t mean it’s healthy, Liebl said. A packaged organic product can still be high in sugar, salt and fat.

“Cut out those dyes and preservatives where you can and try to really focus on fresh foods, but don’t go crazy with eliminating it completely from your diet because especially with kiddos, that can lead to fear of food,” she said. “Having that stuff sometimes is going to be perfectly safe.”

Nicole Welle Nere of West Fargo has two young boys, ages 1 and 3, and said like any habit, eating healthier just takes baby steps.

Instead of fruit snacks, she buys freeze-dried fruit. And instead of store-bought granola bars loaded with sugar, she makes her own at home.

“It’s not difficult. It’s just more work,” she said. “If you can make a pan of bars, you can certainly make those.”

Kurt Kopperud, Swanson Health Products e-Commerce merchandising and marketing specialist, says Swanson has a filter on its website that helps consumers shop specifically for things like organic products or foods made without GMOs.

“It’s better to avoid processed foods and additives like high fructose corn syrup, dyes or chemicals that can all lead to poor health,” he said. “Processed foods also have nearly all their nutritional value stripped from them.”

Amy Hieb, an Essentia Health registered dietician, said parents may need to revise how they think about convenience foods. Instead of grabbing a bag or box of processed food, she suggests having fruits and vegetables cleaned, cut up and ready to eat in baggies in the refrigerator. Parents can also make their own trail mixes and granola bars.

Welle Nere said her oldest child would live on whole fruit if she’d let him.

“Kids only know what you give them. If you start out from the beginning with healthy offerings and things you think are great, that’s all they’ll know and they’ll be happy with that,” she said.

To satisfy her family’s cravings for sweets, Peterson makes something she calls banana bites out of organic frozen bananas, organic milk chocolate and coconut oil.

Her 3-year-old Isaiah and 1-year-old Christian eagerly gobble them up.

“This is a nice way to give our kids a treat that’s somewhat healthy and we know what’s in it,” Peterson said.

Heather Solberg of Bismarck, who has a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old and another baby on the way, says food choices have gotten more important as she’s become more aware of what’s in the food she and her family eats.

In December of 2011 her daughter was diagnosed with Kawasaki Disease, a condition that causes inflammation in the walls of small- and medium-sized arteries throughout the body, according to Mayo Clinic.

She was treated and recovered, but Solberg said that was a turning point for leading a healthier lifestyle. Since eating healthier foods, her family has seen a dramatic decrease in ear infections, colds and flus. They also feel better and have more energy, she said.

“It’s a huge shift in thinking,” Solberg said. “We’re busy moms and dads, and we want to be able to get food on the table quick and it’s easy to pick processed food.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526

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