August 8, 2007

Food for Thought: Nutritious Candy (Really)

Last weekend, the Institute of Food Technologists held a conference in Chicago, where a variety of new and innovative food products were unveiled for approximately 20,000 attendees.

Some of the biggest buzz comes courtesy of candy with added vitamins and minerals in it. It's set to be all the rage in 2008. Expect to see young Hollywood starlets chewing on some in the pages of Us Weekly soon.

I read about this conference over at CNN's website, where Caleb Hellerman (senior producer of CNN's Medical Unit show, for which Dr. Sanjay Gupta -- who I think CNN considers a deity -- is chief medical correspondent) opines:

"Worthless, a prominent nutrition expert told me, although he didn't want his name used. I'm not sure I agree. Of course it would be healthier to eat a complete diet, full of vegetables, but who has the time? Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that barely 1 percent of children and teenagers meet government guidelines for a healthy diet. Neither they nor I were surprised."

"If my kids are munching on candy anyway, is it really so bad if it's giving them their RDA at the same time? Is there a healthy food product you would like to see on the shelves?"

Oh, Caleb... where to start?

"Of course it would be healthier to eat a complete diet, full of vegetables, but who has the time?"

I wasn't aware that opening a bag of baby carrots or popping cherry tomatoes into your mouth was a time consuming activity. Regardless, if we're talking about candy (and, therefore, sweetness) why don't we talk about nature's candy -- fruit.

There is no way I am going to believe that peeling a banana, eating blueberries, or biting into an apple is something people just can't seem to find the time to do.

"If my kids are munching on candy anyway, is it really so bad if it's giving them their RDA at the same time?"

As much as I like to break nutrition down and make it an accessible topic for everyone, it's not fair to break it down as being just about vitamins and minerals.

Yes, vitamins and minerals are important, and we all need them. However, nutrition goes beyond that.

First of all, if we are talking about the prospect children being allowed to eat more candy because it's nutritious, we need to think about implications.

What happens when that child grows up? A young palate accustomed to high amounts of sugar will very likely continue these eating patterns well into adulthood.

And while it's fine and dandy that these Gummi Bears will contains vitamins and minerals, they are still lacking the fiber and phytonutrients present in fruit.

I am not advocating for children to have sugar banned from their diets. Part of being a kid is looking forward to an ice cream cone every Saturday night or getting to share some M&M's with a little brother or sister whenever the family goes to a movie.

However, this "nutrification" of candy is dangerous because it takes junk food away from the "occasional treat" category and places it in the "hey, why not, at least it has vitamin C" category.

Currently, if a parent is making a lunchbox for little Sarah and wants a nutritious snack, she'll pack some trail mix with raisins over a bag of Gummi Bears. It has a hint of sweetness, and, along with vitamins and minerals, offers fiber and antioxidants.

I'm afraid that vitamin-fortified candy will become acceptable as a snack at any time since it has added value.

Not to mention, if these Gummi Bears are anything like Diet Coke Plus ("Diet Coke with vitamins!") they'll contain the exact same vitamin and mineral combination that, by law, has to be present in all breads. In other words, they aren't offering anything you can't get anywhere else.

As soon as I read this story, I headed over to Marion Nestle's blog, knowing she surely had an opinion about this, which she does (and I completely agree with):

Candy is candy. If candy is organic or is laced with vitamins or substances that promote health, at least under laboratory conditions, it still has sugary calories."

Say no more.

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