The sour side of the sweet trade
17 February 2012
Toilet bowls. Blood bags. Barrels of toxic waste. Runny noses. Welcome to the world of children’s sweets – 2012-style.
A new generation of confectionary is making use of novelty packaging and children’s love of the grotesque. When the School of Dentistry’s Maria Morgan, working with a team including Professor Lindsay Hunter, asked Cardiff schoolchildren about their attitudes to these sweets, what they found was alarming.
Maria, lecturer in dental public health, said: “One of the most unexpected things we found was their concept of a “treat”. In my day, a treat was something you had once a week. Now it seems to be once, even twice a day. This is something oral health and nutrition professionals need to be aware of when they advise parents that sweets should only be a treat.”
The children, aged 9 and 10, also showed they were highly aware of where to get these novelty sweets, often in shops near their schools, and of the prices. However they were considerably less aware of health issues, only talking vaguely of “they make you sick” and “bad for teeth”.
The researchers also found that teachers were often unaware that the sweets even existed. Many children said their parents set rules about sweets, but these were not taken seriously.
The garish packaging, bad taste imagery and sourness of some of the sweets were all attractive to children. So too, for some, was the idea that sweets are bad for you. One boy said: “They say, ‘You should not have that because it’s either too dear or it will rot your teeth!’. I’m like, ‘I’m going to lose half of these anyway so like rock on!’ ”
Maria said: “We were concerned for a number of reasons. These are not sweets for sharing and can lead to prolonged contact with the mouth. You need a break from all that sugar. Some of these sweets also have a high acidity, which can also lead to tooth erosion. It really is a double whammy for dental health.”
The team are now hoping to set up a postgraduate project into the issue. They hope to explore parental awareness of these sweets and also whether shopkeepers would consider stocking alternatives. Maria said: “I don’t think we can expect them to offer fruit as a like for like alternative for novelty sweets. However, perhaps they could look at treats which are less concerning and give the mouth a bit more of break.”
The study fits in with wider work Maria has done on healthy eating in Cardiff. In 2006, she and Dr Ruth Fairchild of UWIC were asked by the health board to review all the food initiatives in the city.
The result was the Cardiff Food and Health Strategy. This has been adopted by the Cardiff Health Alliance’s Food and Health Strategy Working Group, which Maria now advises.
Maria said: “We looked at everything going on in the city. We didn’t just study traditional food and nutrition work, but also more holistic initiatives such as food co-operatives, growing schemes, inter-generational cooking projects.
“As a result the strategy covered many issues as well as nutrition. We looked at food quality and food safety – in an attempt to limit the number of poisoning outbreaks. Sustainability is a major action. We are working with the public sector to build sustainability into all their procurement, both in terms of using local produce and more sustainable packaging.”
Maria is also involved in monitoring the success of the Welsh Government’s Designed to Smile campaign. She said: “There are wide inequalities in Welsh dental health, with half of all children aged five already with caries. Designed to Smile is a national oral health improvement programme designed to get fluoride in contact with teeth.
“I’m monitoring the take-up of the programme in the schools. What we want to see in a few years’ time are marked improvements in oral health as measured by our children’s dental health surveys. The work on sweets ties in, and will hopefully help us reduce the amount of caries in children.”
Interviewed by The Public Relations Office, Cardiff University