The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Health Food Junk

July 3rd, 2009 · 11 Comments · Posted in kids, Wellness

Gowing lean on 35 grams of sugar?

Going lean on 35 grams of sugar?

The other morning as I was walking my 9-year-old daughter to summer camp at the local recreation center she begged me to stop and buy her something to eat. She was hungry, she complained. Since she had refused the smoothie of fresh berries and homemade yogurt I’d made for her that morning, I wasn’t in much of a mood to pay for something extra at the store. (Too much fruit, Daddy, she explained.) But of course I relented and we stopped at the health food store where I hoped to find something remotely nutritious.

A display of power bars near the cash register caught my eye. My daughter scanned the selections and picked something with the Kashi label called “GOLEAN Chewey Protein & Fiber Bar.” We couldn’t go wrong with protein and fiber, I figured. So imagine my surprise when, after paying nearly $2 for the thing, I flipped the package and read the ingredients on the “GOLEAN” protein bar my daughter was now inhaling.

Fifty grams of carbohydrates! Yes, that’s right, 50 grams of carbs, or my personal total daily allotment in one little 2.75 ounce bar. And as I found from the nutrition facts, 35 grams came straight from sugars, of which several were listed as the primary ingredients: evaporated cane juice syrup, brown rice syrup, evaporated can juice and “cookie pieces.” You had to read quite a bit further to find the Kashi’s trademarked “Seven Whole Grains & Sesame.” That compares to just 13 grams of protein and 6 grams of fiber in this “protein & fiber” bar. As near as I could tell, the protein is something called “soy protein isolate.”

At this point I was getting mildly angry. How in the world did Kashi get off calling this sugary insulin bomb a “protein & fiber bar.” And packing 290 calories, including four grams of saturated fat, how in the world did it qualify under the heading “lean”?

When I got home I went to the Kashi website and found the entire lineup of “Chewy” bars–“Cookies ‘N Cream,” “Chocolate Almond Toffee,” “Malted Chocolate Crisp,” “Oatmeal Raisin Cookie,” “Peanut Butter and Chocolate”– has similar nutritional values. A second line of bars, “GOLEAN Crunch!” is only marginally better. Then there are “cereal bars,” “chewy granola bars,” “crunchy granola bars,” “fruit and grain bars,” and the ingredients are all monotonously similar–carbs and sugar, carbs and sugar, more carbs and sugar.

Pretty soon you get the idea that you can’t really trust the stuff on the shelves in the health food store. Or is sugar somehow healthier when it comes from brown rice? In 2000, Kashi was bought out by Kellogg, the cereal giant. Kellogg’s strategy was to extend its reach into the healthy foods universe. From the look of things, they’ve put their corporate marketing savvy into a host of dubious products. Caveat emptor.

That was my first mistake of the day. The second was allowing daughter to stop at the corner convenience store ostensibly for a popsicle because she was hot. She came out of the store with something called “The Original Italian Water Ice”–essentially a cup of frozen sugar-water. In the other hand she had a bag containing what she claimed was a treat to include in her lunch the following day. Except that later that evening in front of the television I discovered the empty wrappers from not one but two Little Debbie products, “a “Star Crunch” and a “Fudge  Round.”

I was by now feeling I had been utterly duped by both a clever 9-year-old and corporate food. To make a complete display of my pique, I gathered all the wrappers from the day’s purchases–the Kashi bar, the Italian ice, the Star Crunch and the Fudge Round–and did the math. In just those four items, daughter had consumed 1,030 calories, about two-thirds of her needs for the entire day, including 172 grams of carbohydrates, of which 112 came from sugar, and 15 grams of saturated fat.

I even measured an equivalent amount of sugar on the kitchen scale so that daughter could see what she had eaten. It was a staggering little mound of sugar. Daughter’s response was to stick her finger in it for a taste, then run away.

I don’t know why I admit these things. It certainly makes me look like a bad parent. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen every day. Usually daughter eats her fresh berry and homemade yogurt smoothie, as well as the frozen popsickles we make from the leftover smoothie mix. Apparently all kids have a irresistible urge to gorge occasionally on sugar-laden carbs, and the corporate food interests are only too happy to oblige with an endless assortment of cleverly packaged insulin bombs–even in the health food store.

What made me feel not quite so ashamed, but also a little terrified, was this item about the School Nutrition Association’s annual school food expo. This is where food companies get together in Las Vegas to display all the new foods they have in mind for kids. (Don’t you always conjure an image of Las Vegas when you think of school lunches?) Would you believe an apple bred to taste like cotton candy? Or how about “Polish Water Ice,” a product with no fat, no dairy, no cholesterol, no peanut oil and fewer than 140 calories. So what’s in it? Water, apple juice concentrate, cane sugar, corn syrup, natural and artificial flavor, guar gum, carbohydrate gum, locust bean gum, citric acid and FD&C Red #40. One serving counts for half of the fruit and vegetable requirement for school meals.

And here’s something that actually counts as a serving of fruit in the school meal scheme: The United Commodity Group takes government commodity apples and processes them into flavored applesauce. The neon-green “Super Sour Apple” is made of apples, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavor, FD&C Yellow #5 and Blue #1, and Vitamin C.


For more great stories about how we are taking back our food system, be sure to read Fight Back Fridays.

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  • sacha

    Snacks, especially those targeted at kids, are just plain scary. It’s nearly impossible to find anything at a “convenience” store that doesn’t contain high-fructose corn syrup. I find myself spending an inordinate amount of time reading labels, and the one brand I’ve found to be pretty decent is Late July. They have good snack food for kids and no HFCS. My personal favorite are the mini peanut butter crackers, which come in individual little bags that are great for kids and traveling.

  • Joanna

    Hey, Ed, don’t beat yourself up …. the fact that there are fruit smoothies most days is good, and is a habit that will stick into adulthood. And all that growing – your daughter definitely knows about good food, even if she sometimes wants something else.

    I never buy industrially processed food any more, apart from a few staples such as tinned tomatoes (but even then you have to read the labels pretty carefully). The food industry does not work in the interests of the individuals it supplies, so it’s best to cook from scratch as much as possible. That said, my young are also pretty keen consumers of horrors (microwave popcorn is a particularly nasty junk that they are keen to eat) …. but they have to buy them themselves. So consumption is down. It’s truly hard for parents to fight against all that advertising might. The 80/20 rule helps to retain sanity in all this

    Good luck

  • FoodRenegade

    Oh boy. What a day!

    This is why when people ask how they can change their diet, the first thing I tell them to do is to start reading labels. If people just *knew* what they were putting into their mouths, they probably wouldn’t eat it.

    Thanks for sharing this in today’s Fight Back Fridays carnival!

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  • De in D.C.

    My nearly-9yo son seems to have the same sweet tooth as your daughter. He’d always been a steller eater, though in the past year and a half as gotten quite picky and very whiney about the healthy meals we serve (and consequently make him eat). He even refused to eat his all-time favorite food this week – fresh blueberries. Lunches are coming home uneaten, and then I find out he’s been given fruit snacks (ie, gelatin and sugar shaped like a fruit, but containing no actual fruit) and kool-aid at his daycamp.

    Luckily, when I do occasionally let him gorge on junk food at parties and other special-events, he usually complains of a stomach ache that night and self-regulates for the next few weeks. In a twisted way, I hope your daughter ends up feeling poorly after her day of indulgence and takes it as a lesson in moderation.

  • Ed Bruske

    Sacha, it’s amazing how many foods aimed at children still contain high-fructose corn syrup. It’s hard to find an individual fruit yogurt without it, for instance. I try never to buy packaged foods, but daughter is drawn to them like a magnet. They become a “treat.”

    Joanna, thanks for the encouragement. Fortunately, my daughter loves our home-made popcorn. I can’t stomach the smell of the microwave stuff. She also uses her allowance to buy her own foods. But that cuts both ways. She thinks because she’s spending her own money she can buy whatever she wants, no matter how bad it is for her. We’ve had to intervene. It’s a touchy subject.

    De, I do think our daughter is more health conscious. But sometimes she rebels and goes on a junk food tear. Sometimes it seems more like a power struggle than a food issue. But she will definitely run wild with the carbs if allowed.

  • Pattie

    Ed: The part that struck me here is that there are companies that had gained our trust in the past (such as Kashi), and then, over time, seemingly without warning, they have changed. Perfect example–Silk soy milk. This used to be made with organic soybeans. It is now made with non-organic soy beans. I became aware of this when I looked at the label (which I was used to not checking because I trusted the product) and saw it no longer said anything about the organic soybeans. I no longer buy it.

    Another example–Endangered Species chocolate had been organic for years. Now, the majority of the varieties say “natural” on them instead of organic. I don’t know who purchased the company and made this supposedly “money-saving” change. I don’t care. The company has lost my support. I no longer buy this product.

    There are countless examples of this. Note to companies that buy companies that cater to eco-savvy, informed consumers–we are ON to you. We read labels. We research. We talk. And most of all, we vote with our dollars and we will not vote for you when you abuse the trust we have placed in your products previously.

  • Ed Bruske

    Pattie, my wife is very curious to know whether these Kashi products existed before the Kellogg takeover and whether the formulae had changed for the worse. I thought everything about these power bars was deceptive, and pretty outrageous. I’m a bit fuzzy on the difference between “organic” and “natural.” What, exactly, is the difference?

  • Pattie

    I remember being impressed with Kashi years ago, so I’m guessing that the formulae have compeltely changed.

    100% USDA certified organic requires the use of (mostly–there are a couple loopholes) organic ingredients. The term “all-natural” is completely unregulated and could mean nothing at all. At its most basic, most companies say it means no synthic ingredients are used, but the only way to avoid GMOs, for instance, is by choosing USDA certified organic or from farmers you know, or growing your own (although some companies with non-organic products specifically say that they do not use GMO grains, but that gets my red flag up) Also, USDA certified organic does not allow high fructose corn syrup. FYI, Ed, this may be a way to simplify decision-making with your daughter. With my daughters, the rule is pretty simple–no HFCS. If a product has that, they move on. We then make sure to search out (or make our own) alternatives, and it has proven to be lots of fun and not that hard. But it keeps it simple when the kids are making choices in stores, etc. Most products with lots of other bad things have HFCS, so it kills a lot of birds with one stone.

  • Ed Bruske

    Pattie, the “no HFCS” is a rule we follow. I never cease to be amazed at the products HFCS shows up in. How about yogurt? Have you ever noticed that almost all of the individual-sized yogurts contain HFCS? And why is that? I once mentioned this to the folks at the elementary school where I teach “food appreciation,” that they were serving individual yogurts to the kids with HFCS in it. They complained about how difficult it was to source food in large quantities, but they never stopped serving that yogurt. People don’t take these things as seriously as they should. The school food situation is particularly shocking.

  • danaseilhan

    If you ever find yourself in that situation again I have a suggestion for you: Lara Bars. They’re what I get for my daughter if they’re available and we’re in the store and she happens to be feeling snacky. I haven’t gotten one for her in a while and have no idea who owns them but last I looked at a label, they sweeten them with things like dates, not with “rice syrup” or any of that nonsense. The bars are entirely nut-based and grain-free. It is awesome. I don’t recall the carb count but if it was in any way moderate or high it was owing to the dates, not any of the other ingredients.

    I don’t bother myself about saturated fat, personally. If the body doesn’t get it then the body will make it–it’s present in our cell membranes, and kind of necessary. I remember when I was a kid they’d tell us saturated fat was bad because it’s solid at room temperature. It didn’t occur to me til much, much later that if you are room temperature, eating saturated fat should be the least of your worries.

  • Ed Bruske

    Dana, I had not heard of Lara bars, but then I’m not usually looking at the snack selection. Thanks for the tip.