With children's nutrition, all that glitters is not gold

A&M art instructor satires colorfully packed sugar-saturated kid food in art installation

A&M University Relations

For parents trying to get their children to eat right, it's an uphill struggle against marketing campaigns that use vibrant colors and seductive packaging to lure children into an unhealthy world of sugar-saturated foods, says a faculty member at Texas A&M University.

Mary Ciani Saslow, senior lecturer in the Visualization Program at Texas A&M's College of Architecture, initially began studying children's foods for their aesthetic qualities, but soon found that when it comes to nutrition all that glitters is clearly not gold.

Saslow's research culminated in an art installation, "Sugar Boy," satirizing the lack of nutrients and copious quantity of sugars infused in the many juvenile delicacies crowding colorful supermarket shelves across the nation. Sugar Boy was one of many exhibits featured in the College of Architecture's 2003 Biennial Art Exhibition held last spring at the J. Wayne Stark Galleries on the Texas A&M campus.

"It's hard to separate the seductive beauty of these packages from the manufactured products they contain," explained Saslow. "The goal of my exhibition was to clarify the difference between attractive packaging outside and sugary products inside, the difference between what is real and what isn't, and the difference between good food and products that cause obesity and diabetes. I wanted to arm children and their parents so they could defend themselves."

Saslow found that the problem is not desserts and candy, which are commonly known to be full of sugar and should be limited to celebrations and holidays. The problem is that "food" itself is not what it used to be. She observes that the high sugar content of many "foods" marketed to children leads to life-long addictions to fast fuel and an epidemic of obesity and diabetes.

The meaning of the words "food," "cereal," "drink," "lunch," "snack," and "fruit" have been hollowed out", Saslow said. "This happened slowly over a long time, so we didn't notice. Recently it's gone into high gear with companies designing and marketing new products that fill the middle of the supermarkets. People who have not shopped for children for a while might be surprised."

Sugar cereals

Cereals marketed to children have more sugar, ounce per ounce, than Hostess Twinkies, Saslow says. Despite claims of vitamins, minerals, reduced fat and whole grains, they are around 50 percent sugar. A parent pays for a full box of cereal, but half is cheap sugar, so manufacturers can afford to hire the best graphic designers to make packaging tempting to kids, she explains. All the major manufacturers also make unflavored cereals that contain at most seven percent sugar, but they are not among the rows of sugar cereals at the supermarket at children's eye-level, she adds.

Sugar fluids

Most drinks sold to kids contain more sugar than the water, milk and real juices they replace, and none of their nourishment, Saslow notes. Packaged lunch products also contain high levels of sugar, and snacks are often candies and cookies that are high in sugar as well.

Sugar fruit

Although "fruit" refers to sweet and nutritious natural foods loved by children, it is used liberally to name manufactured products with brilliant false colors and intense false flavors, Saslow also observes. And just because a product says "made with real fruit juices" doesn't make it healthful. Such products can be made up of more than 50 percent sugar, she notes.

Grams tell the story

Saslow gives an easy rule to find the percentage of sugar in a product: First, find the number of grams per serving, listed at the top of the "nutrition facts" panel on the side of the container. Then look further down the panel to the number of grams of sugar per serving. For example, if a serving is 30 grams, and there are 15 grams of sugar per serving, then the product is 50 percent sugar.

4 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon

It's also easy, she notes, to figure out how many teaspoons of sugar are in that serving. Since there are four grams of sugar in a teaspoon, just divide by four the number of grams of sugar listed. For example, 15 grams of sugar in a serving of cereal would be equal to 15 divided by 4 or 3 3/4 teaspoons of sugar - a lot of hidden sugar, she adds.

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Sugar Boy slide show

"Sugar Boy"
By Mary Saslow
View slide show.

Bread slide show

Karen Hiller
Bill Jenks
Carol LaFayette
& Mary Saslow

View slide show.

"Their colors
are as bright
as Pixar's."

Artist's comments(PDF)

"The problem
is that food,
itself is not
what it used
to be."
Sugary food data(PDF)

Sugar Sleuths:
Explorations for
parents and their children ages 8-12