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What about fruitcakes?

News flash: Food advertisers and marketers often exaggerate a product's nutritional value.

January 27, 2007

LONG AGO, IN a more innocent, more slender time, Juicy Fruit used to market itself as "The Gum With the Fascinating Artificial Flavor." Don't look for such truth in sloganeering today. The hidden persuaders at Wrigley now trick us into thinking that the sickly sweet gum is an important source of vitamin C, a nutritional snack to rank up there with Nesquik, Cap'n Crunch and Life Savers.

These are just a few of the health snacks that, a shocking new study from the Prevention Institute reveals, contain absolutely no fruit. In six well-illustrated pages, the institute's "Where's the Fruit? Fruit Content of the Most Highly Advertised Children's Food and Beverages" warns of the epidemic of adolescent diabetes, cites the terrifying statistic that large supermarkets "may display as many as 40,000 products" and mines a recent report on heavily advertised kids' foods from the Kaiser Family Foundation (you may know the foundation from its frequent, and frequently hilarious, studies of youth-depraving media).

"Where's the Fruit?" looks at 37 products that contain words or images on their packaging related to fruit, and finds that, of that total, 10 contain appreciable amounts of fruit, two contain 100% fruit juice and six contain "minimal fruit." The rest, all 19 of them, contain no fruit at all.

If these findings seem unimpressive, it's because they have been cherry-picked as part of a political campaign. [Note: The preceding sentence contains no actual cherries.] Larry Cohen, executive director of the institute, would have the Food and Drug Administration prevent businesses from using images of fruit or the word "fruit" in the packaging for these products, and he rejects a reasonable-person allowance for marketing language. "I would have thought, and other people would have thought, that Life Savers contained some fruit," he says.

Not all these products are easily recognized as junk. The institute deserves thanks for pointing out that Trix Strawberry Kiwi Yogurt is entirely fruit free. And a host of fruit-flavored drinks might fool an incautious shopper about their nutritional value.

Then again, drinks such as Hi-C and Kool-Aid have never pretended to be real juice. That's why kids the world over refer to them collectively as "bug juice" rather than just "juice."

This is not to make light of juvenile obesity or the challenges of giving your family a balanced diet. But many of us look to a world of everexpanding consumer choices and see a glass that is fruit-flavored, berrylicious and at least half-full.

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