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Are Those Lunchbox Snacks Really “Healthy”?

September 5th, 2014
Center for Food Safety

It’s back to school season, which means it’s time to get out the lunchboxes and head to the supermarket. Many parents (and kids) choose to pack lunches to avoid the often unhealthy and expensive options in the lunchroom and school vending machines, but how do you make sure you’re avoiding unhealthy options at the supermarket?

Misleading labels can make it hard to know what you’re really feeding your children. Even when you try to pack a balanced meal, it can be difficult to avoid unhealthy ingredients.

The 7 worst ingredients in processed foods, or “Scary Seven,” are:

  • high fructose corn syrup
  • trans fats
  • MSG (monosodium glutamate)
  • artificial colors
  • artificial sweeteners
  • artificial flavors
  • artificial preservatives.

While some of these are required to be listed in the ingredients list, others (such as MSG) are able to hide under different names.

Trans fats, which are linked to an increased risk of heart disease, get into packaged foods via partially hydrogenated oils that prolong shelf life. Companies are allowed to claim 0 grams of trans fat if the amount is below 0.5 grams per serving. Always check the label to make sure there are no partially hydrogenated oils in your food to avoid trans fat.

When shopping for your kids, simple foods are often your best bet: avoid highly processed foods that contain lots of additives; buy whole foods such as fruits and vegetables; and watch out for added sugar in juices, cereals and yogurts.

Check out this guide for what to look out for when shopping for kids snacks:


Juice

Juice is a good source of nutrients, but should be consumed in moderation in addition to whole fruit. Juices such as Sunny Delight, Capri Sun, Minute Maid Coolers and V8 Splash all have high fructose corn syrup and only small amounts of actual fruit juice. This "juice" is really just a mix of water and high-fructose corn syrup, with a little added fruit juice for flavoring.

Many juices also contain artificial sweeteners and other additives, which are not recommended for kids. Sunny Delight in particular has a long list of ingredients that includes modified corn starch and canola oil.

Look for 100% juice with only one or two ingredients and no added sugar or sweeteners of any kind. Watch out for evaporated cane juice – it sounds healthy, but is really just another name for sugar.


Yogurt

Yogurt can be a great option for a snack, with essential nutrients for your child. However, most yogurts aimed at kids have added sugar and artificial colors, turning this potentially healthy snack into a treat that’s not much better than ice cream.

The healthiest option is plain yogurt to which you can add your own fresh fruit and even a bit of honey or 100% real maple syrup. If your child prefers flavored yogurt, make sure to look for one flavored with only fruit or fruit juice. Avoid Yoplait and Danimals, as all of their products have added sugar.


Fruit Snacks

Claims such as “made with real fruit” and “naturally flavored” can make fruit snacks seem like an acceptable snack for your child’s lunchbox. But fruit juice is often at the end of the list of ingredients, surrounded by additives including artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors and preservatives. Fruit snacks, especially Fruit Gushers, Fruit Roll-Ups and Fruit by the Foot, are just candy disguised as a healthy snack.

Instead of these sugary snacks, try fresh or dried fruit for a sweet and wholesome treat.


Crackers

Crackers are an easy go-to snack, especially when picky eaters won’t eat much else. But they can be full of artificial flavors and preservatives, as well as hidden trans fats. Avoiding all crackers with partially hydrogenated oils, such as Ritz Crackers and Saltines, is a good way to steer clear of trans fats.

Look for crackers with whole grains and no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives for a healthier option.


Breakfast pastries and bars

Breakfast items such as Pop Tarts and Nutri-Grain bars are convenient when you need to get the kids out the door in the morning. But these highly processed foods often contain high fructose corn syrup and other artificial additives. Though they claim to be healthy and made with fruit and whole grains, they have very little nutritional value. Many also have hidden trans fats as they contain partially hydrogenated oils.

Instead of breakfast bars, try oatmeal, whole wheat toast or whole fruit for a nourishing breakfast that’s also quick and easy.

Take this list of “7 ingredients to avoid” with you to the supermarket for easier shopping. Choose organic options when possible, but know that just because a snack is organic doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Always read the nutrition labels, and avoid products with sugar as one of the main ingredients or with too many ingredients that you can’t pronounce. This will help weed out many artificial additives in processed foods and help you focus on whole, healthy ingredients instead.

Take this list of “7 ingredients to avoid” with you to the supermarket for easier shopping. Choose organic options when possible, but know that just because a snack is organic doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Always read the nutrition labels, and avoid products with sugar as one of the main ingredients or with too many ingredients that you can’t pronounce. This will help weed out many artificial additives in processed foods and help you focus on whole, healthy ingredients instead.