A Girl Scout Cookie Gets "Healthwashed:" Musings on Nutritionism and Our Kids

You can easily see how a less food-savvy parent might conclude that feeding a child Mango Cremes is actually a net positive -- the same as offering fruit, when of course a Mango Creme is, in the end, a highly processed, white flour cookie.
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The Girl Scouts organization has been criticized in recent years by some parents, bloggers and activists over the organization's annual -- and quite profitable -- cookie sale fundraiser. The complaints range from the cookies' artificial and/or unhealthful ingredients, the general promotion of cookie consumption in an era of childhood obesity, and the company's use of environment-depleting palm oil.

In what looks like a lame PR move to counter some of this criticism, this year the organization is including in its cookie line-up a new variety called "Mango Cremes with Nutrifusion," a nutrient-boosting additive. The ABC Bakers website (ABC is the manufacturer of some Girl Scout cookies) touts the benefits of this "delicious & nutritious" product this way:

We all want to eat with health in mind. Now, you can in a delicious new way with our Mango Cremes with NutriFusion™ Girl Scout Cookies. . . . These tangy, refreshing tropical treats are packed with great taste AND vitamins!

I won't even bother criticizing this hollow move, as numerous bloggers and commentators have already done so. What really caught my attention was the fact that there is a company out there called Nutrifusion producing this supplement, a proprietary powder which usually goes by the brand name "Grandfusion." The company is, according to its website, the "emerging leader in both the rapidly growing food science and nutritional supplement categories." Citing research showing that "only 21% of shoppers are satisfied that manufacturers and retailers are offering enough enhanced foods," it seeks to fill this void by offering food manufacturers Grandfusion so they can add the "the nutrient-rich benefits of fruits & vegetables" to items such as "breads, muffins, cookies, energy bars, salad dressings, soups, yogurts and beverages."

Despite the fact that this powder presumably comes straight from a lab, the company throws around a lot of "real food," and "whole food" language on its website based on the fact that its process incorporates all parts of the fruits and vegetables used to produce the powder, including the peel and skin. And while Nutrifusion says it doesn't promote its Grandfusion powder as a substitute for eating fresh fruits and vegetables, manufacturers incorporating the additive into their products might not be so scrupulous in their advertising. Here's what the Girl Scouts say about the Mango Cremes, for example:

Crunchy vanilla and coconut cookies feature a mango-flavored creme filling with all the nutrient benefits of eating cranberries, pomegranates, oranges, grapes, and strawberries!

You can easily see how a less food-savvy parent might conclude that feeding a child Mango Cremes is actually a net positive, the same as offering fruit, when of course a Mango Creme is, in the end, a highly processed, white flour cookie with eight grams of fat and 11 grams of sugar per serving.

There's certainly nothing new about nutrient fortification (nor is it always a bad thing) nor is there anything new about "nutritionism," a term popularized by food author Michael Pollan to describe our society's overly simplistic way of viewing food's value based solely on individual nutrients. But this notion of nutritionism and children's food is particularly on my mind today following my recent post on The Lunch Tray about my failed attempt to sneak a carrot into my son's smoothie.

For many parents, myself included, getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables can be a real and constant challenge. There are lots of reasons why this might be so, from a child's innate aversions or sensitivities to ineffective parenting and feeding techniques. But some of the "problem," in my view (and I use "problem" facetiously), lies with the fruits and vegetables themselves. Here's what I mean: Fruits and vegetables are fibrous. Their flavors are quite complex. Even the sweetest orange or apple has an underlying tartness that's integral to its taste -- few fruits are uniformly sweet -- and vegetables offer even more complex flavors, from the sulfurous notes in broccoli to the bitterness of kale. Moreover, fruits and vegetables can be wildly unpredictable. Sometimes the lushest, ripest-looking blackberries in the market turn out to be hard and sour, and that first bite can come as a rude shock to the palate.

Food processing, on the other hand, happily removes every last one of those obstacles to palatability. When food is cleverly engineered and mass produced, fiber is intentionally removed to promote easier swallowing, faster consumption and better "mouth-feel," fat, sugar and salt are carefully calibrated to delight the sense of taste, and there is never a hint of deviation or unpredictability from one box of the product to the next. (For more on how food manufacturers work their "magic," check out David Kessler's The End of Overeating and also the forthcoming Salt, Sugar, Fat, a new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss, reviewed soon on The Lunch Tray.)

Ideally, one might prevent one's child from ever swallowing a mouthful of factory-produced food, but in my experience that's not only an unrealistic goal, it's undesirable. Children live in the real world, a world rife with such food, and I regard it as my responsibility as a parent not to raise them in a "food bubble" but to arm them with the tools to navigate that environment for a lifetime. That said, once children have experienced the pleasures of highly processed foods, even in relatively small quantities, I believe those experiences make it that much harder for them to accept the "imperfect" tastes and textures of fresh produce, at least in children already predisposed to resist it.

And that's where companies like Nutrifusion are ready to jump into the breach. Here's another research nugget offered on its website:

Seventy percent of parents are more concerned about the health content of foods and drinks they purchase for their children than those they buy for themselves.

That's exactly right. We do care deeply about what we feed our kids. And as my smoothie post made clear, it's about a thousand times easier to give your kid a packaged snack festooned with guilt-assuaging "nutritionism" claims than it is to get a veggie-resistant child to eat a carrot. There's never a struggle to get most kids to try a test-marketed, vitamin-fortified-salty-sweet-cheesy-whatever. There's no wrestling with philosophical questions about food sneaking. There's no pushing anyone (parent or child) out of their comfort zone. And on a purely practical level, there's no labor-intensive slicing, peeling, cooking or smoothie-making either.

Feeding kids well in today's food environment can be very hard work. Parents get tired. I know I certainly get tired. But that fatigue is exactly the lucrative marketing opportunity that Nutrifusion and other hawkers of pills and powders are counting on. So let's not give in to the healthwashing. Armed with our carrot peelers and apple corers, supported by each other on blogs like mine (and on other great blogs like It's Not About Nutrition, 100 Days of Real Food, Real Mom Nutrition, and Red, Round or Green), let's continue to do what we can to teach our kids the pleasures of real "real food," and try to resist the easy out that nutritionism offers us.

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