With around 1.3 million NSW school students heading back through the school gates at the end of January, dentists have some tips for families who want to refresh their kids’ lunch boxes and help improve their oral and overall health.
The Australian Dental Association’s NSW Vice President is Dr Dominic Aouad. ‘As parents and carers, we are busier than ever, and the daily grind of making and packing kid’s lunches means that often it can feel easier to reach for convenient options that are actually higher in sugar than you realise.
‘As a father of two children who take a packed lunch to school, I know how hard finding extra time is, but setting kids up for good oral health starts early in life,’ said Dr Aouad.
‘In my dental practice, I see firsthand the impacts of daily sugar consumption. We know that many popular and convenient lunch box items are high in sugar, causing tooth decay or gum disease over time.
‘This can lead to more invasive dental treatments for children such as fillings and early extractions and also contribute to greater hospitalisations and chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes later down the track,’ he said.
How much sugar?
Parents might be surprised to know that a lunch including dried apricots, a flavoured yogurt, and a fruit juice box is delivering more than double the recommended daily amount of sugar. Limiting sugar consumption is the key to preventing tooth decay, which is the most common chronic disease in childhood.
According to 2022 figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, around 1 in 4 (24%) of Australian children aged 6–14 had dental caries in their permanent teeth, and around 1 in 10 (11%) had at least one permanent tooth with untreated decay.
Tips for tooth-friendly lunchboxes
- Include something from each of the five food groups including fruit/vegetables/legumes/beans, dairy, grain (cereal) foods and lean meats poultry/fish/eggs. E.g., cheese sticks hard-boiled eggs, or high protein vegan alternatives.
- Replace chips, chocolates, muesli bars, and sweet biscuits with items such as fresh fruit, celery and carrot sticks, and cucumbers.
- Limit snacks that are high in sugar and/or saturated fats e.g. donuts.
- Pick whole fruit over fruit juice – the vitamins, minerals and fibre make it more filling and nutritious and reduce the sugar content per serve.
- Pack water as your school drink rather than sports drinks, juice, soft drinks, cordials or flavoured milk which are high in sugar.
- Look for grain-based snacks with whole grains and high fibre, such as wholegrain bread and crackers.
- Processed snack products such as muesli and breakfast bars, chips, and cookies should be limited to one item and ideally a low-sugar choice, such as rice crackers, popcorn and cheese.
Dr Aouad suggests that as well as packing a tooth-friendly lunchbox, ‘parents should ensure their child visits a dentist at least once a year for a check-up, as maintaining good oral health improves overall health outcomes for your life.
He said brushing teeth twice a day, flossing and drinking tap water in place of other drinks are also easy ways to help protect oral health among people of all ages.
Checking the labelling of packaged items before buying to see their real sugar content is a quick way to gauge what should be included or not in school lunchboxes.
More alarming numbers
According to the Australian Oral Health Tracker, poor oral health in childhood is the strongest predictor of further dental disease in adulthood, with 70% of children aged 9-13 consuming too much sugar, and oral diseases such as tooth decay, gum disease and oral cancer contributing to early onset illness, disability and death in Australia.
Are there hidden sugars lurking in your son or daughter’s lunch box?