Is Your Kid’s Food as Healthy as It’s Advertised to Be?
When we talk about keeping our kids healthy, a lot of things come to mind.
Like how to stop them from being sick in the first place.
Like feeding them a healthy breakfast to get them started on the right foot.
Like coming up with creative ways to make unhealthy foods healthier.
When we’re putting this much effort into feeding them healthy food, we’d like to at least know that the products we’re buying are actually as good as they tout themselves to be, especially since “health-conscious” or organic products tend to be more expensive.
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Unfortunately, study after study shows that “healthy” items may not be as healthy as they claim. For example, this study looked at front-of-package labeling on 58 children’s products labeled as “smart choice” or “sensible solution.” The results: 84% failed to meet basic nutrition standards for sugar, fat, saturated fat, sodium and fiber. 95% contained added sugar.
And this study found that over half of the most aggressively marketed children’s foods with fruit on the packaging actually contained no fruit ingredients whatsoever.
To help you figure out what “healthy” food is worth your hard-earned dollars, we put together a comprehensive list of many of kids’ favorite foods, a note on how they’re being marketed and what you should know to make the most informed decision possible.
Take this list with you the next time you head to the grocery store and you can be sure the foods you’re feeding your family are actually worth their weight in health.
|What It Is||What to Look Out For||What to Do|
|Premium Cereal||Often more sugar in one portion than the American Heart Association recommends for a whole day||The AHA suggests a child have no more than 12 g. sugar a day, so aim to keep it under 6 g. at breakfast; good choices include Kix, Cheerios and Rice Krispies|
|Organic Cereal||No pesticides or genetically modified organisms, but not necessarily more nutritious than regular cereal||Some organic cereals are less nutritious because they’re not fortified with vitamins like many conventional cereals; EnviroKidz Frosted Flakes is low in sugar and fat, and has fiber|
|Hot Cereal||Can be a great source of fiber, but beware cereals marketed to kids, which may have excessive sugar||Plain oatmeal is definitely the healthiest option; try adding honey, brown sugar or fruit for flavor|
|Breakfast Bars||Even “healthy” granola and cereal bars can have up to 20 g. sugar each; some fruit bars don’t contain any fruit at all||Ignore the marketing and look for less than 8 g. sugar and at least 3 g. fiber, like Kashi’s TLC bars|
|Frozen and Dry Mixes: Waffles and Pancakes||Generally high in salt and saturated fat, many contain partially hydrogenated oils–which means trans fats||Avoid partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients, and keep salt at 55 g. or lower per serving; a good option is Arrowhead Mills Organic’s pancake/waffle mix|
|Fruit Juice||If sugar is listed as the first ingredient, then it’s the most abundant ingredient in that drink–and the AHA suggests kids have no more than 12 g. added sugar a day||Look for 100% juice and avoid high fructose corn syrup; apple juice is naturally higher in sugar, so stick to one serving and consider creating “fruit fizz” of half juice, half seltzer; good choices include Tropicana orange juice and V-8 low sodium vegetable juice|
|Punch||Many are heavy in high fructose corn syrup and artificial additives||Look for 100% juice as an ingredient, like in Juicy Juice 100% Fruit Punch|
|Soda||We’ve spotted between 14 and 66 g. of sugar in one serving of some sodas!||Serve soda only as a treat and limit kids to one serving; a decent choice is Schwepp’s Ginger Ale, which has 40% less sugar than average soda (but still almost twice as much as a child’s daily serving)|
|Milk||The FDA and USDA claim no significant differences between organic and regular milk, but many people think hormones like rbST pose health issues||There are a lot of conventional brands that stay away from rbST, so aim for organic milk or a regular carton that says “rbGH-free” or “no GMO”|
|Yogurt||Yogurt is naturally sugar-filled, plus many brands add artificial sweeteners||Look for yogurts high in protein and low in fat and calories, like Greek yogurt (we like Chobani Champions Very Berry Kids Greek Yogurt); if your kid isn’t a fan, try adding fruit to vanilla yogurt|
|Cheese||Many cheese singles have partially hydrogenated oils, which are trans fats; shredded cheese often has extra additives to extend shelf life||Try shredding block cheese yourself, or look for cheeses with only wholesome ingredients, like milk, cheese culture, salt and enzymes–also try to keep salt at no more than 50 g. per serving; Kraft’s extra thin Swiss slices are a good choice|
|Cookies||Most cookies and premade cookie doughs are high in sugar and may contain partially hydrogenated oil, which are trans fats||Limit portion size to the suggested serving size (or less) and try finding versions with whole wheat or any kind of bran; the best we could find were Health Valley double chocolate chip cookies (no fat, 3 g. fiber and 11 g. sugar per three-cookie serving)|
|Chips||Many contain MSG (which can go by other names, found here), artificial colors and preservatives; many fat-free chips contain Olestra, a “fat free” oil that negates the body’s ability to absorb vitamins and may cause digestive issues||Look for three ingredients only: potatoes (or corn, for corn chips), salt and non-hydrogenated oil like safflower, sunflower or corn oil–good choices include multigrain Sun Chips, Frito Lay’s corn chips and Lay’s lightly salted chips|
|Chicken Nuggets||Often made with unhealthy, synthetic ingredients (including MSG); usually 30-50 calories per nugget, with sodium at 30% the daily recommended amount||We’re not too impressed with any on the market because all we found have at least some synthetic ingredients, but Earth’s Best Kidz Baked Chicken Nuggets is the best of what we found|
|Pizza||Many have partially hydrogenated oils, which are trans fats; watch out for “cheese substitute,” a synthetic ingredient||If you need a quick frozen variety, try Newman’s Own; if you’re up to it, the best is to make your own with whole wheat English muffins, tomato sauce and a little fresh mozzarella|
|Frozen Meals||Often off-the-charts sugar, fat and calories, and the ones marketed to kids are usually even worse||Choose “adult” frozen meals, especially from Smart Choice or Amy’s Organic, which tend to have healthier options; we have more ways to make frozen foods healthier for kids here|
|Ice Cream, Frozen Yogurt and Sorbet||Low-fat ice cream can mean increased sugar and calories; “carb smart” can mean high fat; fro-yo doesn’t necessarily mean less sugar, fat or calories; sorbet is often very high in sugar||If you care most about sugar, choose fro-yo with low sugar. If you’re looking for “wholesome,” choose ice cream limited to ingredients like milk, eggs and sugar (such as Haagen-Dazs). If you want diet-friendly and don’t mind additives, try a Healthy Choice bar.|
|Jarred Baby Food||A pretty safe choice: Few have added sugar and there are plenty of organic choices||Choose jars with no added sugar or corn syrup, keeping in mind that fruit has lots of natural sugar already; our suggestions are for Gerber, Beech-Nut and Earth’s Best|
|Baby Formula||There are formulas for specific digestion needs, like lactose intolerance, gassiness, frequent spit-up and more; formula is highly regulated by the FDA, so brand name isn’t too important||Speak to your doctor about what nourishment is best for your baby, and consider investing in iron-supplemented formula, which helps with brain development|
|Soups||When the Breast Cancer Fund tested canned foods marketed to children for BPA (a substance not regulated in the U.S. that may leach into food), every sample tested positive; in addition, many soups are very high in sodium||Look for soups packaged in cardboard cartons, which are BPA-free, and aim for “low sodium” options because they limit sodium to 140 mg. per serving; our faves include Earth’s Best organic chicken and stars soup for babies and low-sodium adult soup for older kids|
|Pastas||Pasta is a great choice! It’s low in sugar and fat, and enriched brands usually contain nutrients like protein, iron and folic acid||Try whole wheat pasta for its added protein and fiber—most kids can’t even tell the difference, especially if you choose a fun shape|
|Fruit||Many canned fruits have added sugar, so avoid thick syrups; some cans may contain BPA||Look for fruits in 100% fruit juice with no added sugar, like Dole fruit bowls and Del Monte fruit in 100% juice–these will be packaged in plastic, not canned|