by Marion Nestle
Jan 19 2011

Surprise! Most “better-for-you” kids’ foods aren’t

The Oakland-based Prevention Institute has just released its new research report: Claiming Health: Front-of-Package Labeling of Children’s Food.  The report summarizes the Institute’s investigation of whether kids’ foods with “better-for-you” front-of-package labels meet dietary recommendations and nutrition standards.

Bottom line: they don’t.

Researchers bought 58 kids’ food products made by companies who have promised to meet certain nutritional criteria.  All had front-of-package labels that indicate healthier options.

The researchers measured the contents of these foods against a fairly standard—and quite generous—set of nutrient criteria.

The criteria allow products to have up to 25% of the calories from added sugars, up to 480 mg of sodium, and as little as 1.25 grams of fiber per serving.

Even so, the data show that:

  • 84% of the study products could not meet one or more of the nutrient criteria
  • 57% of the study products were high in sugar
  • 53% of the study products were low in fiber
  • 93% of cereals were high in sugar and 60% were low in fiber
  • 36% of prepared foods and meals were high in sodium, 24% were high in saturated fat, and 28% were low in fiber
  • 90% of snack foods were high in sugar, and 90% were low in fiber

Nutrient criteria make it easy to game the system, and front-of-package labels do exactly that.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) will soon release its second report on front-of-package labels, this one recommending what the FDA should do about them.  Let’s hope the IOM committee pays close attention to this report.

Claiming Health makes it clear that without rigorous nutrient standards, plenty of not-so-good-for-you foods will be labeled as better for children.

As I keep saying, alas, front-of-package labels, like health claims, are about marketing, not health.

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  • Anthro

    Ah, but marketing has near god-like standing in our culture. It is protected under “free speech” and corporations are now “citizens”, so I think the road ahead will be rocky at best.

    It is now embedded in the culture that something from a box is appropriate for breakfast (no matter the content), and that a “treat” is something given to a child every time he asks for it.

    Even at the co-op, I see nice earthy Moms handing out the myriad copy-cat treats that this supposed “health food” store sells. They seem to think that their children will not get fat from organic sugar or flour! Last time there, I even saw a grandmother buying one of those cookies the size of a pie plate for a (fatish) child who was just finishing up some other treat-disguised-as-a-meal.

    So, I have high hopes for the report, because we need to turn this around and put the health of children first–they really ARE citizens.

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  • Jennifer Feeney

    @Anthro I agree. And how about the idea that everybody and their brother seems to think they have the RIGHT to give YOUR child a treat? Our schools give candy incentives and have little parties left and right that serve junk food and sugary drinks, the grocery store hands out samples, the bank hands out suckers. When I say no thank you, they look at me indignantly and remark, “Oh, it’s just a treat. They don’t get it all the time” As if I’m depriving my child in some terrible way…but add up everyone’s treats and they have had several so-called treats in a day. Ridiculous!

  • jsr

    Thank you Marion for, yet again, denouncing the desastrous practices of the food industry. The findings of the study unfortunately don’t come as a surprise… even though it still saddens me…
    As shared in a comment to a previous post of yours, we’ve decided to stop buying food from supermarkets ( We indeed believe that, not only deciphering the labels becomes a pretty complicated task, but we can also influence our societies practices by ‘voting with our wallet’. And altogether, we are eating much better food at a cheaper price!

  • Anthro


    I don’t think reading food labels is difficult, even though the industry has tried to obfuscate by not clearly stating the calories in the actual bag/box/carton. The serving sizes on the package should reflect what people actually tend to eat! Who eats 13 chips or cheesits? However, when I DO look at the serving size and then the calories for that one serving, I more than likely put the package back on the shelf.

    Also, I think there are plenty of decent and nutritious foods available in the average grocery store. You just have to stay on the outer aisles–produce, meats (if you eat them), dairy (low-fat, no sugar) and bakery–whole wheat and skip the pastries. The only thing I go to the center aisles for is baking powder, peanut butter, olive oil, ww pasta, beans, brown rice–but I get most of these in the bulk food section (which many supermarkets have). Most aisles I skip entirely–chips, cookies, cereal, candy (the big C’s they are called in the grocery biz), soda, most condiments (lots of salt there), and most canned food.

    By the way, the same rules apply at Whole Foods and the like. They are just as much or more guilty of stuffing every end cap and extra bit of floor space with pre-packaged “treats”. At least their deli food is less fatty and used much higher quality ingredients, but I don’t buy deli food, regardless.

    By the way, the outer aisle rule has been my practice for 40 years, although Marion is the one who popularized this in her wonderful book “What To Eat”.

    I am a food marketers worst enemy and I invite you all to join me!

  • Joe Plumb

    No way! You mean “better-for-you” Fruit Loops aren’t actually healthy? To be fair, the food companies are not saying these foods are healthier, only that they are better than the previous versions- through such amazing advancements as more fiber (so you can poop out the sugar faster!), less sugar (just add in more sodium!), and less corn syrup (replaced by the always wholesome can sugar.)

    Is our food IQ so low that this is news?

  • Pete

    @Anthro – full fat dairy is far better than low fat. It is much less processed. Just eat less of it if you are worried about calories. And is yogurt bad? It has sugar (and I’m not talking about added sugar). Also, meats? Only if they are organic/grass fed/antibiotic & hormone free.

    @Joe Plumb – yes food IQ is absolutely that low. Next time you go shopping ask people why they buy things and if they know anything about them. I do this all the time (because I can’t help myself) and you’d be amazed at what people think is healthy. Guess what Honey Nut Cheerios aren’t heart healthy no matter how you spin it. Bee Happy. Bee Healthy. My favorite though has to be my discussions at the vending machine in my office. “Guess I’ll get the Nature Valley bar (or NutriGrain). At least its healthy.” Don’t tell me this type of marketing doesn’t work, I see it every day. Yet people still have the nerve to stand there and ask me “so what’s good for me in here?”… before they can even finish I respond “Nothing. Eat food instead.” (to be fair, if there are nuts or a trail mix without chocolate chips in it I recommend that sometimes)

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  • Margeretrc

    @Anthro and @Pete, Full fat dairy IS better, not only because it’s less processed, but because it has fats in it that will satisfy sooner, ensuring you don’t over consume whatever sugars are in it. Low fat and non fat milk have more sugar in them, as well as additives to make up for the flavor lost when the fat is removed (especially non fat milk). Cheese and (plain) yogurt have a lot less sugar in them because the bacteria convert most of the sugar to lactic acid and other compounds that are good for you. Yes, yogurt is good–as long as it is plain and full fat. Low fat yogurt, even if it’s plain, will have non fat dry milk products (never a good thing) in it to thicken it up. Yogurt made from pure skim milk tends to be watery. Any yogurt that has sugar added is better left in the dairy case, of course.

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