Understanding food labels

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Ananth Somaiah

Today, it is a tough task to teach children what is nutritious food. First of all, it has to be taught not theoretically (doesn’t work), but experientially, by actually eating healthy food as much as possible. The second difficulty is that as adults, we ourselves need to learn a lot – and changing our own food habits is not easy at the best of times. The third difficulty is the plethora of contradictory and confusing information and media hype on the right and wrong foods that we get.

Under these circumstances, lectures don’t work with children, period. Project based learning is the most appropriate method of introducing the subject of food in school – certainly, good food habits followed at home is much better. Through ‘real-life’ projects (as opposed to academic projects), children can ask questions and search for answers on some real life issue today. The learning then is more meaningful and deep, and we can attempt to bridge the gap between theory and practise which is the bane of education today.

Several food related projects can be meaningful to children in school – projects on processed foods, analyzing one’s food habits, creating your own food guidelines, calculating food miles of different foods and working out your ‘food print’ (carbon emissions from the food you eat per year) etc.

A simple plan for a project on, Understanding ingredients of processed foods, is given below:

Number of sessions required: 8 – 10 sessions of 40 minutes each.

Class size: Any reasonable class size (20 to 50) is possible, but dividing into small groups for activities is important.

The basic plan for a real life or ‘hands-on’ project should include –

  • introduction through a talk, or preferably short articles or documentary films
  • building a foundation of ideas
  • structuring your activities
  • letting children choose a way to consolidate and present what they have learnt (eg: making an information booklet, a power point presentation or putting up a skit. )

The plan given below is just an indicative one – you can make your own plan based on your situation: can parents be called in to help? Is a short field trip possible? Can you get a resource person who has studied food issues be called in? Can you get additional sessions for more movies or workshops?

Session 1 and 2 (preferably on the same day): introduction through reading material or documentary film

Several interesting documentaries are available on the subject of processed foods, junk foods and chemicals in foods. (Some of these are listed on page 31) Screening them for children is an excellent way to introduce the topic. If this is not possible, reading material can be obtained easily from the internet or through parents who are interested in the topic, which can be converted into a single page write up which we shall call the ‘Discussion sheet’.

After screening of the film or reading of the discussion sheet, the teacher can ask some leading questions like – what are your favourite foods? How often do you eat food that comes packed with labels? and have an open discussion in the class. In the open discussion there should be no conclusion reached or any ‘advice’ given to children as to what is good food etc. This is very important to help maintain an interest in the subject.

Home work: The class can end with a request that children bring in any material on processed and packaged food to read out and discuss in the next class, from the internet, newspapers, magazines etc.

Session 3: Sharing of learning

The teacher has to do her homework too - look up the internet to understand processed foods and their ingredients, labels etc. while the children do their home work.

A general sharing of the material brought in and what has been learnt is enough work for this class. Again there is no need to sum up or find solutions.

Home work: Keep getting information and learning more about various ingredients.

Session 4: Small group discussion

Children form groups of 4 to 8 and discuss the following questions. (the class must continue to work in the same groups in future sessions.)

  • Where does food come from?
  • What are the sources of raw, unprocessed food?
  • What do they understand, what, images come to their mind when they hear the words ‘healthy eating habits’ or ‘unhealthy eating habits’?
  • What is processed food? Give examples of processed food.
  • Why do food companies make processed foods?
  • Why do food companies advertise their products? What are the different techniques/gimmicks they use to attract children?

Each group must be requested to bring for the next class different packs/labels of these five categories of foods: Soft drinks, Biscuits, Noodles, Breakfast cereals, Fruit Juices and chips. Each group must have at least one of each of these items, so that they have five different labels to study.

Session 5 : Start studying labels

Discuss the objective of the project : To understand processed, packaged foods and how healthy or harmful are their ingredients. Explain the need for this objective in order to focus on the larger objective of becoming a healthy eater. Announce to children that each group must present their learning in one or more of these ways:

  1. make a small information booklet,
  2. make a group presentation to the rest of the class and if possible other classes as well,
  3. or write a small skit and act it out

Let children sit in their small groups but work individually with the different packs to:

  • Identify place of manufacture, date of manufacture of the product
  • Classify in two columns the ingredients they can recognize and understand from the unknown ones.
  • Research the unknown ingredient.
  • Find out if any ingredient is harmful and how as part of homework for the day.

Home work: Divide known and unknown ingredients amongst group members to do their research on. Internet and other sources can be used. If internet based research is not possible, the teacher would have to give notes on the required information to children.

Session 6 and 7

Play the Detective - children work in their small groups and share the research they have done with each other. They need session 7 to further obtain information from the internet or from parents and others. In session 6 and 7 they also plan how they will present the information they have collected to the rest of the class.

At the beginning of session 6, children may need to be given some leads to focus on certain chemical additives like

  • monosodium glutamate (MSG) and the other names it goes by such as ajinomoto or hydrolysed vegetable protein.
  • aspartame
  • food colourants
  • excitotoxins and in what ways they are harmful. It would be better if any of the children have some information on these and they share it with the class.

 

Session 8 : Presentation

Each group presents their learning to the rest of the class as a booklet that is read out, as a group presentation with props etc, or as a skit. If possible, parents can be invited as audience.

Children show much more involvement in such projects and generally such hand-on learning makes a very deep impact.