Parents, beware: These kid-friendly foods claim to be healthy, but they're not

Photo from ThinkstockPhoto from ThinkstockThink cereals, fruit drinks, and soups are healthy choices for your kids?

Think again.

A new study by the Prevention Institute shows that claims printed on the front of kid-friendly foods are often misleading. A whopping 84 percent of products tested, from breakfast cereals and granola bars to canned and frozen meals, didn't even meet basic nutritional standards-in spite of official-looking labels and promises of added vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

The labels aren't necessarily lying. A high-sugar product may also be low in fat, but that doesn't make it good for you; ditto cereals that promise whole grains but also pack plenty of artificial colors or flavorings. At a time when a third of U.S. children are obese or at risk of becoming obese, labels that don't tell the whole nutritional story are a major problem.

The researchers took a closer look at the nutritional information for 58 kid-friendly foods that had been deemed healthy by the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a project launched by the Better Business Bureaus in 2006. The picks included household staples like Skippy peanut butter, flavored versions of Cheerios cereal, plain Rice Krispies, Chef Boyardee classics, Danimals yogurts, and several Campbell's condensed soups. (You can check out the entire list here.) They examined each product's sodium, fiber, fat, and sugar content, calculated the amount of calories that came from sugars, fat, and saturated fat, and double checked the ingredients against the guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The results? Forty-nine of the 58 products failed the test.

To qualify as healthy, foods had to get less than 35 percent of their total calories from fat, less than 10 percent of them from saturated fat, and less than 25 percent of them from sugar, contain at least 1.25 grams of fiber per serving, and contain less than 480 milligrams of sodium per serving (600 milligrams for meals). Drinks were exempt from the fiber requirement, and products with nuts got a pass on fats. Even so, the bottom line is pretty bad.

The 58 foods in the Prevention Insitute Study. Photo from preventioninstitute.org The 58 foods in the Prevention Insitute Study. Photo from preventioninstitute.org Ninety-five percent of the products contained added sugar. More than half (53 percent) were too low in fiber. Nearly a quarter of the prepared foods were high in saturated fats, and 36 percent of them were high in sodium. Twenty-one percent contained artificial coloring, which has no nutritional benefit and some potentially harmful side effects. Fifty-three percent of the products had no fruits or vegetables; of those that did, the most common vegetables were tomatoes and corn (which, technically, is a high-carb grain, not a veggie).

The worst offenders were Apple Jacks cereal, Betty Crocker's Dora the Explorer fruit snacks, Campbell's Spaghetti-Os plus calcium, Kid Cuisine All-Star Chicken Breast Nuggets, and Capri Sun Sunrise drinks.

"Based on their nutrition profile and ingredient lists, many packaged foods should actually be viewed by parents as treats for their kids," says Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D., the nutrition editor for EatingWell Magazine. "Treats are OK. I'm not saying parents shouldn't offer kids treats or desserts. It's just that they should be offered and eaten in moderation."

Front-of-the-package labeling is not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Since each manufacturer sets its own standards for what's printed on the front of the bag or box, claims of "low fat" and "high fiber" may seem great, but can actually hide nutritional shortcomings.

"Take, for example, granola bars," Wright says. "They seem like a healthy snack-and some are-but there are also granola bars out there that from a nutrition standpoint aren't all that different from a candy bar."

So what should you buy instead? Wright suggests seeking out "whole foods" like applesauce, carrot sticks, cheese sticks, dried fruits, and nuts (if your child's school allows them). Just be sure to check out the nutritional panel on the back instead of relying on claims printed on the front. "Remember that 'sugars' on the Nutrition Facts Panel includes both natural sugar and added sugar," she points out, "but you can still compare total sugar content from, say, one yogurt to the next."

In case you're wondering, the nine products that lived up to their healthy claims were:

  • Capri Sun 100 Percent Juice Fruit Punch
  • Kid Cuisine Bug Safari Chicken Breast Nuggets
  • Kid Cuisine Karate Chop Chicken Sandwich
  • Kid Cuisine Campfire Hot Dog
  • Kid Cuisine Pop Star Popcorn Chicken
  • Kid Cuisine Magical Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza
  • Quaker Chewy Granola Bars (25 percent less sugar Chocolate Chip only)
  • Kool Aid Fun Fizz Drink Drops (Giggling Grape only)
  • Campbell's Princess-Shaped Spaghetti-Os.

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