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Natural Sweets for School Treats

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It's back to school this month, which means kids will need healthy, tasty foods to keep their energy up and provide the nutrients their growing bodies need.

It's back to school this month, which means kids will need healthy, tasty foods to keep their energy up and provide the nutrients their growing bodies need. With a little insight and determination, it's possible to offer a selection of quick, healthy snacks for those kitchen pit-stops between homework, skateboarding and soccer practice.

Nuts widely available across Canada include filberts (hazelnuts), almonds, Brazil nuts, pecans, pistachios (avoid the red ones; they're dyed), walnuts, cashews and the more exotic and expensive macadamia and pine nuts. Not only are they quick energy-boosting snacks, but they're also rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, starches and sugars.

Nuts contain phytosterols, which boost the immune system and inhibit the absorption of cholesterol. High cholesterol counts have become a problem even among North American youth, so increasing the amount of raw nuts in children's diets can help.

Most kids, young and old, love the challenge of cracking a nut. Shelled nuts--the most natural form-are less expensive and better for you; they have a natural protective layer against free-radical damage from exposure to light and air. If you can't find nuts in the shell, buy them raw and whole. It's harder to camouflage old or damaged nuts if they have not been processed in some way.

Nuts can be eaten raw (after soaking to wash away the nut's protective enzyme inhibitor) or roasted at home with added flavours such as natural sea salt or honey. As they are such a concentrated food source, it's best to eat them in moderation and to chew thoroughly before swallowing. Another way to include nuts in the menu is to soak raw nuts in water and then pur?them into a nut milk. Homemade nut milks can be strained for those who prefer a smoother drink.

Speedy Snacks

Seeds are another nourishing and delicious snack. Sunflower seeds are best eaten raw or lightly toasted, and un-hulled sesame seeds are an excellent source of calcium. Keep these on the table to use as a condiment. Grinding them further helps with digestion.

September is a great time for kids in Canada. Apples are coming off the trees to be eaten out-of-hand. Tree-ripened peaches are still available in September, as are blueberries, grapes, plums and pears. Some kids can be enticed by the whole fruit while others may prefer them cut into slices. How you present snacks can make a huge difference. Use tiny bowls for blueberries, for example, and pretty plates for cut-up fruit, cheese and whole-grain crackers. The positive associations with healthful food will remain with them throughout their lives.

Other snacks that aren't loaded with processed sugar or salt include toasted nori strips and other sea vegetables. Sea vegetables are a great source of natural iodine and fluorine. They have antibiotic properties as well as concentrated amounts of minerals and trace elements needed by humans. Another suggestion: make popcorn more interesting with toppings like gomashio (a toasted sesame topping), nutritional yeast, ghee (clarified butter) or Asian spices.

Nutty Fruit Balls

Try this recipe favourite: chop and mix a selection of dried fruit and nuts. Add enough honey to be able to form the mix into balls, then roll in coconut. Even young children can be involved in forming and rolling the balls. Store in an airtight container in the fridge. Variations include adding bee pollen, ground flax seeds, sunflower, psyllium or sesame seeds. Dried fruit options include apricots, peaches, apples, raisins or currants, cranberries, berries, cherries, figs, dates or other more exotic types. The nut to fruit ratio can be varied according to personal preference.

Dried fruits on their own are a good snack option, but avoid bright orange dried apricots or peaches because they can contain sulphites. If you have access to free or inexpensive fruit and vegetables, shop for a dehydrator. You can also dry fruit in a very low oven, but enzymes are destroyed at heat higher than 48°C (118°F).

Home-made muffins using honey or other natural sweeteners have endless variations and allow the cook to sneak in healthy ingredients such as nuts, flax seeds, currants or shredded carrots and zucchini (see alive recipes this issue). Small hands can join in the work of making them. Baking muffins also provides an opportunity to experiment with alternate flours like hemp, spelt or kamut if you're trying to avoid wheat in your family's diet.

Sneaky Sulphites

Sulphites are potentially harmful food additives used as sanitary agents and preservatives to help prevent discolouration in dehydrated, frozen and fermented fruits and vegetables. They are mainly found in processed foods, non-organic wines and junk foods.
How do you know a product contains dangerous sulphites? If the label on the product contains one of the following, steer clear:

  • Potassium sulphite
  • Sodium bisulphite
  • Sodium sulphite
  • Potassium metabisulphite
  • Sodium metabisulphite
  • Sulfur dioxide

Reactions to these six chemicals in sulphite-sensitive individuals can include mild breathing difficulties, achiness, rashes, runny noses and anaphylactic shock. Symptoms may include severe headaches, faintness, abdominal pains, nasal stuffiness, facial flushing and diarrhea. These reactions, unlike other allergic responses, occur quickly, usually within 20 minutes or so after ingestion of sulphite-containing food.

Sulphites also destroy vitamin B1 (thiamine), which is why foods that are known to be major sources of this vitamin are not allowed to contain them.

While many people can tolerate sulphites with no noticeable side-effects, there is a growing population which is highly sensitive to them. If you have allergies, asthma or suspect a sensitivity to sulphites, you can protect yourself in several ways.

  • Don't trust salad bars (the food might have been sulphited by the produce supplier before it even reached the restaurant).
  • Select dried fruits cautiously (some asthmatics can have attacks simply from smelling a freshly opened package of dried apricots). When using dried fruit other than your own, bright orange apricots and peaches are a sure sign of sulphites.
  • Throw away the outside leaves of any lettuce or celery purchased at supermarkets.
  • Ask at restaurants if your food contains sulphites.
  • Check your local pharmacy for a new sulphite test strip that's designed to produce a virtually instantaneous red colour when touched to a sulphite-containing food (the brighter the red, the more sulphites).
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