"Healthy" Kids' Foods That Aren't
Find out which popular "healthy" kids' foods are actually unhealthy.
My sons are grown now, but I remember well the challenges of stocking my pantry with foods they liked that were good for them too. Because I'm a nutrition professor, my neighbors, friends and family often ask me whether or not a particular food is a nutritious choice for their kids. Here are a few foods that at first glance seem healthy, but deserve a closer look.
-Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D.
1. Granola Bars
Many granola bars are, unfortunately, candy bars in disguise. How do you pick one for your child that isn't essentially candy? I look for three things.
• Whole grains-find a bar where the first ingredient is a whole grain, such as whole-grain oats, or a combination of whole grains, such as whole wheat, rye and barley.
• Fiber-Granola bars vary widely in the amount of fiber they have. Aim for a brand with at least 3 grams of fiber per bar. The Kashi brand is among the best I've found, with most varieties coming in at 4 grams per bar. Quaker Chewy Granola bars come in at a measly 1 gram.
• Calories-The amount of calories in the bar should depend on how you plan to use it. If it's a snack, try to keep the calories under 150 calories per bar. If it's a meal replacement or for a very active teen, it's OK to go up to 200 calories per bar.
2. Veggie Puffs
Pirate's Booty Veggie, along with other veggie puffs, is a popular kids' snack that masquerades as a bag of vegetables, but is far from it. Take a look at the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed in order of quantity-the first ingredient is cornmeal (a refined grain); the veggies are near the end and all of them are powdered (kale powder, carrot powder, cabbage powder, parsley powder). Then there's the nutrition facts panel: there is only 1 gram of fiber per serving and less than 2 percent of the daily value for vitamins A and C, yet the vegetables listed are excellent sources of fiber and both those vitamins.
The bottom line is the kale, carrot, cabbage and parsley powders are nothing more than spices adding some flavor and color. Since Pirate's Booty Veggie is trans-fat-free and relatively low in sodium, it's a marginally better choice than cheese puffs, but should still be used as an occasional treat and definitely NOT considered a serving of vegetables.
3. Macaroni & Cheese
Kraft's new macaroni and cheese Veggie Pasta Dinner comes from the "sneaking better-for-you foods into kid-friendly foods" school of nutrition. Kraft freeze-dries cauliflower, pulverizes it and then mixes it with processed, refined flour to make macaroni. Supposedly kids can't taste or see the vegetable (which is undoubtedly why Kraft opted for a white rather than a green vegetable). Nutritionally, the veggie version is slightly better than the standard version. A third of the box (one serving) contains the same number of calories as the original (250), has 3 grams of fiber (vs. 1 gram in the original) and is marginally lower in sodium (550 mg vs. 580 mg). Either way, both deliver about a quarter of the total amount of sodium kids should have in a day. And in all likelihood only very young children will eat such a small serving size.
Here's my two cents: While the veggie version is slightly better than the standard version, it's surely not going to get your kids to learn to like vegetables. A better option would be to make whole-wheat pasta with cheese and mix in fresh or frozen real vegetables. If your kids see you eating your vegetables, over time they'll eat them too. I promise.
4. Kid-Friendly Yogurts
Yogurt is a terrific food for kids (adults too). It is an excellent source of calcium and potassium, two nutrients in short supply in most children's diets. The downside is that most of the "kid-friendly" yogurts deliver a hefty dose of added sugars. And unfortunately it's difficult to figure out how much added sugar is in yogurt, since companies don't list it on the nutrition facts panel. A four-ounce (1/2 cup) serving of plain, unsweetened yogurt has 8 grams of sugar coming from the naturally occurring milk sugar lactose. Anything above 8 grams of sugar per 1/2 cup is added sugar. One four-ounce serving of Dannon Danimals low-fat strawberry yogurt has 17 grams of sugar. When you subtract the 8 grams of lactose (the naturally-occurring sugar in yogurt) that leaves 9 grams of added sugar. At four calories per gram, this means your child is eating 36 calories of added sugars, accounting for about a third of the 110 calories in the container.
Here's one way to handle the yogurt issue with your kids. Let them pick one pack of kid's yogurt if they agree to mix it half and half with plain, unsweetened yogurt. When it's gone, until the next shopping trip give them plain yogurt sweetened with fruit, a teaspoon of sugar (only 16 calories) or a teaspoon of maple syrup (13 calories). Your kids will learn that yogurt doesn't need to be sticky sweet to be enjoyed.
5. Snack Crackers
I see kids eating snack crackers in the grocery cart, in their car seats, in church and at the doctor's office-and Goldfish crackers seem to be EVERYWHERE. I know they are convenient and kids love them. But the main ingredient in the original Goldfish crackers is unbleached enriched wheat flour, which is essentially another name for white flour and delivers little nutritional value. When I shop for crackers, I always read the ingredient list first looking for whole grains (look for the words "whole wheat," "stoneground whole wheat", "oatmeal" and "whole cornmeal").
Pepperidge Farm now makes whole-grain cheddar cheese flavored goldfish crackers in 100 Calorie Pouches. The first ingredient is whole grain wheat flour, making them a better choice because, although most of the nutritionals are the same (calories, fat, sodium, etc.), at least they deliver some fiber.