For parents looking to sneak some nutrition into their kids' school lunches, brightly packaged fruity snacks — many of which promise they're the equivalent of a serving of fruit or more — are undoubtedly tempting. After all, the plastic-wrapped bars, sticks, rolls and strips contain no pits, seeds or cores and require no washing, peeling or slicing. And kids tend to eat them without any fuss.
But convenience aside, parents shouldn't kid themselves. "They're not as good as eating regular fruit," no matter the promises on the package, says Mark Kantor, professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Maryland in College Park. Fruit snacks, whether or not they claim to provide a serving of fruit, don't offer all the nutritional benefits of whole fruit and often contain added sugars and sometimes fats, he says.
Small children need two servings of fruits and three servings of vegetables per day, according to federal guidelines. Older children and teens need more: three to four servings of fruit and four to five servings of vegetables. (A serving, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a half-cup of fruit or a medium-size fruit, such as an orange or apple.)
But few children of any age consume the recommended amounts. A survey of more than 8,000 Americans, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Assn. in 2006, revealed that just under half of 2- to 3-year-olds get enough fruits and vegetables, and the figure plummets with age: Less than 1% of teenage boys eat the amount their growing bodies need.
Enter food manufacturers.
Fruit leather and Fruit Roll-Ups have been around for decades, but newer versions of the sticky snacks — products such as Clif's Twisted Fruit and Stretch Island's Fruit Strips and Smoooshed Fruit — now entice parents with the promise of "a serving of fruit" with each bar or roll.
The snacks usually derive their fruit content from the same few sources: purée of apple or pear, apple juice concentrate and grape juice concentrate. Apples, pears and grapes are such popular ingredients in fruit snacks because they're naturally very sweet, says Anuradha Prakash, professor of food science at Chapman University in Orange. (Prakash is also a spokeswoman for the Institute of Food Technologists, as is Kantor.)
Sugars, in addition to vitamin C, potassium, fiber and an array of antioxidants, are the key nutrients in such fruits, she adds — whole fruits, that is. But the words "juice" and "purée" on package labels are an indicator that most of the nutrients didn't make it into the final, processed product. Vitamin C levels drop during processing because the vitamin is sensitive to heat. Fiber is removed when a fruit is pressed into a juice, and so are antioxidants, many of which are found in the peel.
"As soon as you remove the peel, you've removed a huge amount of the benefit," Prakash says.
Sugars, meanwhile, survive the journey from whole fruit to fruit snack very nicely — even getting concentrated along the way. Grape juice concentrate is essentially a "euphemism for sugar," says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. "These juice concentrates are so highly processed that basically all that is left is sugar," Nestle says.
Not all fruit snacks are the same — some are worse than others. Parents should look past claims such as "a serving of fruit" or "made with real fruit" or "made with real fruit juice" to the list of ingredients on the back, Kantor says. Many products include added sugars in the form of corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup, and some contain vegetable oils, i.e., fats.
The Kellogg's Finding Nemo fruit-flavored snack (just one in a large line of fruit snacks by the company) says "made with real fruit" on the front of the box, but the product actually contains more corn syrup than fruit: Apple purée concentrate is listed third on the ingredients list, after corn syrup and sugar.
Betty Crocker's Fruit by the Foot has "real fruit" in the form of concentrated pears, but the product also contains several types of added sugar (sugar, maltodextrin and corn syrup) in addition to partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil.
Popular health food store brands may not offer much of an advantage. Annie's Bunny Fruit Snacks boast that they're "made with real fruit juice," but their No. 1 and No. 2 ingredients are tapioca syrup and cane sugar; the only fruit in the product is grape juice concentrate.
Products made with "real fruit juice" aren't the best way to increase your child's fruit consumption anyway, Prakash says. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one serving (6 ounces) of juice per day for children 6 and younger and no more than two servings a day for children older than 6. Too much juice, the AAP notes, can cause diarrhea, flatulence and tooth decay, and doesn't guide children toward a habit of eating whole fruit.
Eating whole, fresh fruit has been linked to reduced risks of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, vision loss and several forms of cancer. Kantor says that no processed fruit snack can approximate these benefits. That's because the precise vitamins, minerals or so-called phytonutrients responsible for fruit's benefits are unknown. By choosing processed fruit over fruit, "you could be losing out on things that are beneficial, but we don't know what they are yet," Kantor says.
The bottom line: To give kids a serving of fruit, hand them an apple, cut up some watermelon or put blueberries on their cereal. But, says Nestle, when it comes to packaged fruit snacks, "consider these products fruit-flavored candy — and sticky at that."