Dear EarthTalk: I see a lot of “healthy snacks” being marketed for kids that list “natural flavors” but don’t identify them. Should I use these products? -- John Stein, Methuen, MA
Beloved food writer Michael Pollan recommends steering clear of foods that advertise their green attributes on their label. According to his line of reasoning, why give a child a fruit roll-up when you can give him or her a piece of fruit? Only processed foods need to advertise what’s natural about them, whereas an apple speaks for itself, providing wholesome nutrition without the need for marketing hype.
But most of us depend on the occasional packaged or processed food, so choosing between the lesser of two evils sometimes has to be the way to go. If a product lists natural ingredients on its label—anything from real fruits, vegetables and nuts to cereals, grains and other healthy foods you can recognize without a food dictionary on hand—it’s probably better than a food reliant on artificial flavors and sweeteners.
“One way for your kids to enjoy healthy snacks is to get them started on naturally sweet foods,” says Christine Steendahl of Kid Approved Meals, which sells menus and shopping lists to parents looking for guidance in meal preparation. “Since most kids crave sweets…naturally sweet foods such as fruits are perfect,” she says. Real bananas, oranges, apples, cherries, strawberries and other fruits are popular with most kids. “You can mix in yogurt or even make a fruit smoothie with some milk and a drop of chocolate or other natural flavors,” Steendahl suggests.
“One thing to recognize about children is that if they try enough types of natural and healthy snacks, they will find one that they enjoy,” says Steendahl. “The problem is that many times parents give up trying to find the snacks that their kids like and settle for popular junk foods instead.” She stresses the importance of teaching kids which snacks to eat and which to avoid early in life so that they can sidestep obesity problems altogether. Nuts and dry cereals, for example, are good alternatives to chips and other junk food.
According to California-based pediatrician and author William Sears, who markets his own line of healthy kids snacks called Lunchbox Essentials, parents should make sure that any snack foods they give their family members provide both fiber and protein, which give the feeling of fullness, and taste good as well. He adds that parents should learn to read labels so they can tell which products contain hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup—all of which should be avoided.
As a last resort for especially finicky kids, parents can find packaged snacks that might look like junk food but are actually healthy and nutritious, including certain brands of fruit roll-ups and granola bars. Look in the snack aisle of your local natural foods market for such items, and don’t be afraid to ask store personnel for recommendations. It’s important to take your child’s nutrition seriously. Whether he or she ever realizes it, you are setting patterns that will enable them to live healthier and longer lives.