Fruit roll-ups, granola bars, yogurt tubes and mac n' cheese cups are just some of the food items marketed to children for lunchtime. Unfortunately, many foods aimed at kids are overloaded with refined sugar, starch, salt, and a long list of additives that often can barely be pronounced. With back-to-school-season just around the corner, here's a look at some of the top offenders according to health experts.
Granola bars seem like a good option, but not all bars are created equal. Quaker Chewy granola bars have a long list of ingredients and multiple sources of sugar. The second ingredient in Nature's Valley Sweet & Salty Nut Bar is corn syrup, followed by sugar. "There are definitely granola bars that are healthy, so you don’t have to write them off," says registered dietician Vanessa Rissetto. "But some have high fructose corn syrup and tons of sugar, so really look at the table of contents."
Kids love yogurt in a tube, but be wary. "Drinkable yogurts have a ton of sugar," says registered dietician and pediatric nutrition expert Deborah Malkoff-Cohen. The second ingredient on both Dannon's Danimals Swingin' Strawberry Banana Yo-tube and Yoplait's Simply Go-Gurt Strawberry is sugar. A better option is plain Greek yogurt with some real fruit mixed into it.
Nutrition experts say fruit roll ups, gummy bears, and other processed fruit snacks should be avoided or at the very least not used as a lunch food. "They offer minimal nutritional value. Most fruit snacks sent in lunches are pressed fruit or gummies, which stick to the teeth and cause cavities," explains Dr. Lisa Lewis, author of the book "Feed the Baby Hummus." "Fruit snacks generally have no protein or healthy carbohydrate, just loads of sugar." Try a piece of fresh fruit instead.
Kids relish a juice box beverage. The downside of these drinks is their sugar content. Even though many juice brands are labeled "healthy" or "100 percent juice" they're made with large amounts of sugar, often hiding in the juice concentrates. "People truly believe that ‘Oh, it's 100 percent juice, so it's fine,'" says registered dietician Vanessa Rissetto. "You shouldn't be drinking your calories. The more sugar you have, the more cramping you have and G.I. distress." Capri Sun apple juice packs claim no added sugar but still contain 20 grams of sugar per drink, while Apple & Eve apple juice boxes have 12 grams of sugar.
Fruit bowls are yet another food item created to look and sound good but are unfortunately full of sugar. "It's not fresh fruit, and how hard is it to pack a fresh banana instead of a Dole Fruit Cup?" wonders dietician Deborah Malkoff-Cohen, who points out that the Dole tropical fruit cup in light syrup contains 17 grams of sugar. Dole mixed fruit bowls in 100 percent fruit juice are no better with 18 grams of sugar.
Cheez-its and most other processed cheese snacks are not actually good for you despite the fact that they have cheese in the name, says Dr. Lisa Lewis. "Parents see the word cheese and may be misled to believe the product is healthy,. Reading the ingredients, one will find the top two ingredients as flour and oil. These are basically empty calories with a lot of fat." A healthy alternative is a cheese stick or nuts.
There are some good versions of veggie chips out there, but once again it's critical to read ingredients carefully. "Veggie sticks are typically just potato product," says dietician Vanessa Rissetto. "It's just chips." In fact, Veggie Straws have less nutrition and far more sodium than a tortilla chip, which is a better lunch snack option. The top ingredients in Veggie Straws are potato starch, potato flour, and cornstarch.
Yet another sugar offender are Jell-O chocolate pudding cups. They contain 18 grams of sugar per cup as well as hydrogenated oil, artificial flavoring, and artificial coloring. A better option? "I make my own at home," says dietician Deborah Malkoff-Cohen. "Or you can give them string cheese, or fruit, or make homemade cookies. If you have to give them something pre-packaged, give them an applesauce cup."
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are practically a childhood rite of passage. But once again, not all peanut butters are equally healthy. "Make sure there is no oil or sugar," says dietician Deborah Malkoff-Cohen, pointing to Skippy as an example. Among the top five ingredients in its reduced-fat peanut butter are corn syrup solids, sugar, and salt. Skippy's Singles contain hydrogenated vegetable oils at the top of their ingredients. In contrast, Smucker's natural peanut butter has just two ingredients — peanuts and salt.
Unless it's a dire emergency, dietician Deborah Malkoff-Cohen says she does not serve a child PediaSure. The brand's drinks have anywhere from 12 grams up to 17 grams of sugar (PediaSure SideKicks). "I recommend parents make their own smoothies," she says. "Kids in general, whether from PediaSure or not, are grossly exceeding the added sugar recommendations from the American Heart Association." The association's recommendations include children over the age of two consuming no more than six teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar each day.
The ingredients found in Ritz Bits cheese crackers include palm oil, sugar, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, high fructose corn syrup, and cheddar cheese powder. But perhaps the biggest issue with these little snacks is their sodium level, say nutrition experts. Ritz Bitz Go-Packs have 160 milligrams of sodium. "Ritz Bits have tons of sodium," said dietician Vanessa Rissetto. "If everything kids are eating has this much sodium, they will go way above their daily intake of salt."
While trail mix can be a much healthier food option, the key is to avoid the versions that include chocolate chips, M&Ms, and other sweets that diminish the value of this snack. "People think it's super good, but again, it has tons of sugar when you buy the packages that include M&Ms and chocolate bits," said dietician Vanessa Rissetto.
The first ingredient of this chocolate spread is sugar, and its second ingredient is palm oil. "Nutella isn't good for you," says dietician Vanessa Rissetto, who notes that while kids are going to have sugar, you want to help them develop healthy eating habits. "Having cookies, fruit snacks, or cake is part of being a kid. But these can't be things they eat every single day because they will develop terrible habits. You don't want that to be their diet when they grow up."
These little cookie bombs are loaded with sugar, unhealthy oils, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial flavoring. "There is a place for some of these things, but you have to look at the overall picture of lunch," says dietician Deborah Malkoff-Cohen. "Add it up if you're putting a kid's meal together. If they are eating chips and gummy bears, what are they really getting at lunch? It's a whole picture."
These packaged meals barely deserve to be called food (think "pasteurized prepared cheddar cheese product"), argue some nutritional experts. "These are commonly eaten and don't contain any nutritional value, in fact, they contain very little food at all but just food-like manufactured substances," says Audrey Christie, a holistic wellness practitioner and registered nurse. "Ingredients in these little packages can contribute to, amplify, and irritate everything from leaky gut to anxiety to ADHD." Claims about the correlation between food additives and ADHD have yet to be proven, however.
While primarily marketed as a breakfast item, toaster pastries end up in many lunches as well. No matter which meal they find their way into, toaster pastries are typically far from healthy. Most are filled with refined sugar, added colors, and bad fat. They often do not provide much or any nutritional value.
These microwaveable food products have very little actual food, says holistic wellness practitioner and registered nurse Audrey Christie. "It is full of food dyes that contribute to behavioral issues," she explains. "Overall, it has over-processed ingredients, high in carbohydrates, with little or no nutritional value."