NUTRITION Delicious, easy to eat on the go, perfect with milk or tea, these are often considered indispensable dietary staples. But here's why you should beware of that biscuit

Your child will soon be back in school and it is possible that you are planning a shopping spree to stock up on a break box essential--biscuits of all kinds, fillings and flavours! Or if you're visiting someone who is sick, in addition to fruits and juices, you may have been tempted to present them with various brands of 'healthy' cookies. And today, there are plenty to choose from, including the ones that boast of wholesome oats and combine several varieties of whole grains. With all the advertising propaganda, you may be excused for thinking that biscuits, if not entirely healthy, are at least a harmless snack. In reality however, the nutritional benefits of biscuits, (even the so-called healthy variety), are questionable at best and since children tend to be the largest consumers, this can create several health issues at a tender age.

Full stomach, empty calories: “Childhood obesity is on the rise in India and the main reason for this is the access to packaged high-calorie food, combined with declining physical activity,” says Neha Sanwalka,, a certified dietician, diabetes educator and Director of NutriCanvas, a nutritional consultation firm based in Mumbai. “Children are very fond of biscuits. However, the fact remains that these are concentrated sources of empty calories--they provide only sugar and fat and do not add any essential nutrient that could enrich your child's diet."

And there is the problem of portion sizes. Most children, when left unsupervised, can easily finish an entire pack of biscuits in one sitting. "Four cream biscuits provide approximately 200 calories, which is the amount of calories a 5-6 year old child should consume at breakfast or lunch," says Dr Neha. "A normal serving is usually 3 at a time, however, children tend to eat anywhere between 6-8 consuming a great deal of calories and fat. These cream biscuits are also very high in simple sugars, which when consumed in excess are converted into fat by the body, triggering childhood obesity."

Bursting the health bubble: As consumers, we tend to be flooded with the tempting allure of good health from the high-fibre, multi-grain or oats variety biscuits. If these have graced your shopping cart at any time, then you have been a victim of advertising. There's a shocking nutritional truth behind this. “Most of these biscuits contain more than 50% refined flour or maida. They may have less sugar, but they provide exactly the same (and in some cases, more) calories and fat per biscuit as compared to a regular variety of biscuit,” says Neha. “Most of these so-called healthy variants of biscuits make claims of being “high in fibre” and containing “no cholesterol”. These provide merely 1 g of fibre per biscuit, a very negligible amount. Biscuits contain no animal origin ingredient, so whether they are the ‘healthy’ variety or the regular kind, they do not contain cholesterol anyway. All biscuits, irrespective of health claims are easy sources of calories and fats. Portion sizes and frequency of consumption must be monitored for both children and adults to prevent development of diseases such as hypertension, obesity, cardiac problems and diabetes later in life.”

Cancer-causing chemicals: In 2002, researchers in Sweden found a chemical called acrylamide in a variety of carbohydrate rich foods that were fried or baked at high temperatures. When these foods were consumed in large quantities, they caused cancer in laboratory animals. Researchers believed that this chemical can be just as carcinogenic (causing cancer) in human beings as well. “The one hazard of biscuits I know of is that baking cereals leads to the formation of acrylamide," says Dr Parang Mehta, a pediatric consultant based in Surat and head of Mehta Childcare. Acrylamide and other toxic products can result from high temperatures applied to a variety of grains, including wheat and soyabean. However, it was also found that a change in baking temperature and time would reduce this problem.”

So unless you are certain that your biscuit manufacturer is following the revised process, a fact that is nearly impossible to ascertain, experts advise that it's best to avoid or limit consumption.

Pressure problems: Hypertension is also surprisingly on the rise in children. “What many parents don't realize is that the recommended sodium levels per day for children is about 1000-1200 mg. Biscuits are very high in sodium content and range from 22 – 100 mg/ biscuit. Excessive intake of sodium can result in irregularities in blood pressure and hypertension, even in childhood,” says Neha.

Food allergies: If food allergies tend to run in your family, you must be cautious before introducing your child to biscuits, especially the cream variety, which have been known to trigger attacks. “Food allergies can lead to skin eruptions, and even severe reactions like anaphylaxis (that can be fatal),” says Dr Parang Mehta. “Allergic skin reactions are usually characterized by red rashes and itching. There may also be swelling at various places, called angio edema.”

When we take such loving care of our children, we should definitely be more alert to what goes inside their bodies as well. Sometimes, biscuits are an inseparable part of childhood. But by keeping a close watch on portion sizes and how often they snack, you can ensure that your family stays safe and healthy.

Kamala Thiagarajan