Choosy moms choose…

Fruit Shredz™ sample package. Click for a larger image.

On Twitter the other day, I was told that “moms choose organic” for their kids. I’m a mom (almost) and I don’t choose organic. Personally, I dislike the implication that I am doing wrong by not buying organic and I think it causes harm to spread such an idea because it might discourage people from eating healthy foods that don’t have that label (or encourage people to eat junk food just because it’s labeled organic). Also, organic is a small percentage of food and beverage sales in the US (4% overall, 11% of produce¹) so it’d be impossible for very many moms to be choosing organic exclusively or for even part of their diet.

Yet, as I’ve been gathering information about baby food, toys, diapers, and more, there does seem to be some strong marketing behind organic items for moms and babies – drawing on the claim that “organic is healthier”. It’s not just organic, either. There’s green-washing and health-washing everywhere I look. I have one particular example that I’d like to share…

Lots of companies give freebies to pregnant women and new moms. It’s nice to get an idea of what is out there, as long as you keep in mind that most of what is promoted is not actually necessary or that there are far more cost effective options out there (and there’s even a few scams – be careful!). I got a food product in a goody bag (from either Buy Buy Baby or Babies R Us, I don’t recall) that exemplifies the silliness of healthier-than-thou marketing.

Fruit Shredz™ back of sample package. Click for a larger image.

The product is Fruit Shredz™ ² (specifically “Peach Peelz flavor), a product that claims to be:

  • real organic fruit
  • full serving of fruit per pack
  • perfect lunchbox snack

They also make a lot of health and safety claims³:

  • always certified organic
  • no genetically modified ingredients
  • no high fructose
  • no trans fats
  • no artificial ingredients
  • BPA free packaging

Based on these claims, what do you think the ingredients might be? You’d expect all-natural fruit leather – maybe pureed peaches that have been spread and dried into inch wide strips, right? Minimally processed dried peach puree in a kid-friendly form, with little or no added sugar and with lots of nutrients. Maybe it’d be similar to Archer Farms fruit strips, which at least seem like something you could make at home.

Yes, this is a picture of the Fruit Shredz product. It tastes about as good as it looks. Click for a larger image, if you dare.

You’d be wrong. The ingredients are: organic apple puree concentrate, organic apple juice concentrate, organic peach puree concentrate, cellulose, pectin, and natural flavors. This product is about as processed as you can get, regardless of its organic-ness. None of these ingredients are “bad” or unsafe but they don’t exactly combine to make a healthy product. Per 18 gram serving, there are 60 calories from 16 grams of carbs (1g fiber and 14 sugar), plus 4% of the RDV for vitamin C and no other nutrients. The paltry amount of fiber is likely from the cellulose, which is derived from wood pulp or cotton.

Compare this to an apple: a 125g serving has just 65 calories from 17g carbs (3 fiber and 13 sugar) plus small amounts of a few vitamins. Now, probably when people like that well-meaning mom on Twitter say they choose organic, we can hope they mean mostly whole foods – but obviously there is a market for organic junk food, and the companies are depending on the health halo to sell you that junk food, often at much higher prices than non-organic.

Where does that health halo come from? Let’s go back through that list of claims:

  • always certified organic
    • There isn’t any biologically significant difference between organic and conventional when it comes to nutrition. For an example, see my recent post: When a tomato is a just tomato.
    • Pesticide residues are also cited as a reason to buy organic, but the same USDA data used to calculate the “Dirty Dozen” list actually shows that both organic and conventional have very low levels of residues are are safe to eat. See Why you shouldn’t panic about pesticide in produce on NPR’s The Salt blog for a great summary.
    • Environmental impact is also cited as a good reason to buy organic, but as I describe in the tomato post mentioned above, the yields for many organic crops are much lower than for conventional, so even though the on-farm impact may be reduced you also have to consider how many more acres are needed to produce the same amount of food. Also, many conventional farmers strive to use environmentally friendly practices, too! It’s not really accurate to look at organic or conventional as a monolithic form of agriculture – there is an incredible amount of variability. in a perfect world, companies would use a voluntary label to tell us this sort of detailed information.
    • Still, people are free to choose organic for whatever reasons they like! But, this label is pointless, because the certified organic stamp is already on the front of the package.
  • no genetically modified ingredients
    • One reason why this label is silly is that none of the ingredients have genetically modified counterparts. We may get genetically modified apples eventually, but the non-browning trait isn’t any concern from a health or sustainability standpoint.
    • Of course, while I support voluntary labeling of genetically modified ingredients or the lack thereof, this label doesn’t really tell us anything. It doesn’t say anything about health, safety, or sustainability.
  • no high fructose
    • Michael Pollan says in his Food Rules book that high fructose corn syrup is a good indicator for processed foods. That might have been true as recently as a year or two ago, but with so much demonization of HFCS, many food companies have switched to other forms of sugar so they can slap a “no HFCS” label on their products (such as Peter Pan peanut butter). This Fruit Shredz product is no less processed because it doesn’t have corn syrup. Even Pollan himself has said that the problem is too much sugar, not HFCS itself. And Fruit Shredz have plenty of sugar.
    • Apple juice concentrate is a great substitute for HFCS: apples actually have twice as much fructose as sucrose, the same ratio as HFCS. Looks like Fruit Shredz are actually high fructose after all. Oops.
  • no trans fats
    • This is one of those statements like Asbestos Free Cereal or Non GMO asparagus – when of course no cereal has asbestos and there has never been GMO asparagus on the market. Labels like these just intentionally confuse people so they will buy the product, or in the case of Non GMO asparagus just confuse people in general, apparently.
    • Even the most incredibly unnatural fruit flavored food products (Fruit Rollups, anyone?) don’t have trans fats.
    • Finally, this label is also pointless, because one can see if there are trans fats by looking at the nutrition facts panel. The FDA has mandated trans fats labels since January of 2006.
  • no artificial ingredients
    • What does this even mean? Do any of the ingredients of Fruit Shredz sound natural to you? I suppose the definition of artificial means something that wasn’t derived from a natural product, but “no artificial ingredients” just sounds hollow when referring to cellulose and pectin. Both may have natural sources but does that make them “natural”?
  • BPA free packaging
    • First, BPA has been used in hard plastics and in can liners. I may be wrong, but I don’t think any foil packages have BPA. Even if there was BPA in the foil, would it be absorbed by the “snack” at sufficient rates to have a harmful effect?
    • The FDA has determined, using the very latest research, that current levels of exposure to BPA are safe.
  • full serving of fruit per pack
    • Perhaps this is true in the same way that a slice of pizza has a serving of vegetables on it in the tomato sauce.
  • perfect lunchbox snack
    • Maybe it’s just me, but this is not the sort of “perfect lunchbox snack” that I want to feed to my children. A low-fat cheese stick, full of calcium and protein, is a perfect lunchbox snack. Fresh fruit slices, with fiber, antioxidants, and nutrients, is a perfect lunchbox snack.

The take home message here is to be careful about the health halo. Just because something is labeled organic, or “all natural”, or has other green or healthy claims, does not mean it is good for you. Everyone, especially pregnant or nursing women as well as children, should aim to have fruits and vegetables make up a high proportion of their diets – just like it says in all the pregnancy books – and things like Fruit Shredz do not count. Moms can choose organic if they wish, but they shouldn’t feel that they have to buy organic to keep their babies healthy.

.

¹ Organic food and beverage sales represented approximately 4 percent of overall food and beverage sales in 2010. Leading were organic fruits and vegetables, now representing over 11 percent of all U.S. fruit and vegetable sales. Reported in the Organic Trade Association’s 2011 Organic Industry Survey. Of course, the organic market share seems much larger than it is.

² I don’t mean to specifically pick on Plum Organics (the company that makes Fruit Shredz and a variety of other processed organic fruit products). This could just as easily have been about processed food products of any company that makes this sort of claims. I just happened to get this product in my goody bag.

³ You may have noticed these and similar claims on conventional food products.  I’ve seen them too, although I have never seen so many claims together in a list on one product before, organic or conventional!

Anastasia is a Board Member of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes! Learn more about Anastasia at about.me. Disclaimer: Anastasia's words are her own and views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of her employer(s). She is not paid to blog or conduct any social media activities. Any mention of a specific company or product does not indicate endorsement of that company or product.


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8 comments to Choosy moms choose…

  • Ute Lehmann

    I am a raw food eater. Inklusie raw meat and raw fish. I have eight children, but they dont eat only raw things like I do. Some foodstore fruits and vegetables dont taste good, I look then to organic fruitstores, they have more varieties than the grocery. I think that most veggies are grown to cook them and not been eaten as raw food. I think that its no matter if genetic techniques are used to grow new fruits and veggies, but I dont want to have foreign proteins in my food like bacillus thuringensis proteins (an “insectize”) I think its not good to eat convinience food or tinned food ..consisting of starch, fat, cheep meat and flavorings and additives. A plant lives at all , junk food has died..

  • Alex T

    Re HFCS & weasely ways to avoid evil buzzwords, I noticed that an organic cereal I like has swapped out sugar for “crystallized sugar cane syrup”. I’m not a food scientist, but that sure sounds a lot like “sugar” to me :)

  • Jeff

    I agree, not the “perfect lunchbox snack” but compared to some of the junk out there it is pretty decent, two of the five ingredients are processed whole foods. Can’t say the same about my some of my snacks like vegan “jerky”. Tasty, but still junk food. :)

  • Trish

    Thank you for sharing this factual, well-researched information. I know people have the choice to buy what they want, but I am shocked that so many are swayed by false marketing and accept it as gospel that I just shake my head at their “willingness to believe.” I hope your article helps not only Moms but all consumers.

  • I could not agree MORE! Packaging is SO misleading. I am a label reader. Best case scenario is, no label required. This means it is a WHOLE food, such as an apple. I do buy organic produce when possible, however, especially when the price is comparable to conventional.

  • Lyza

    Anastasia,

    great article. One slight disagreement, though: “The FDA has determined, using the very latest research, that current levels of exposure to BPA are safe.” The FDA’s perspective on BPA is nothing close to current. The F.D.A. declared BPA safe in 2008, but began expressing concerns about possible health risks in 2010. Last year it banned BPA from baby bottles. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/18/science/fda-bans-bpa-from-baby-bottles-and-sippy-cups.html?ref=bisphenola

    The same government agencies that you cite as trusted sources of information for BPA are the ones that decided that ketchup and tomate sauce count as servings of vegetables (in your bullet point just below the one about BPA). As scientists we are trained to trust the data and not the yada yada – in this case it’s the same idea. I totally agree with your point of trying to show the stupid greenwashing in the label (foil would not have BPA anyways), but don’t go too far in discrediting claims against BPA.

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