Sometimes I think having snacks on hand is the most crucial aspect of parenting.
So fruit chews -- little bags of goodies that don’t need to be refrigerated -- that say they’re made of real fruit and promise 100 percent RDA (Required Daily Allowance) of vitamin C? They seem like are a godsend. But as nutritionist Maya Feller reads off the sugar content of the various fruit chews we’ve purchased -- “10 grams, 12 grams, 15 grams” -- the sugar is an issue.
The World Health Organization advises just 15 grams of added sugar a day for kids. That’s the sugar content in one packet of Target Market Pantry Chews, and the sugar in one-and-a-half of all the other packets of chews we buy.
And these are not big servings. I rip open the small package and count out the gummy shapes inside: nine in a package. Later, I use my own kids as guinea pigs and offer them a packet as their after-school snack. Within 60 seconds, all nine gummies are consumed. “Mom, I want another one.” I cave. They are hungry; I have nothing else with me in the car.
Feller gives me a visual on that two-packet snack, saying, "That’s pretty much the same as handing your kids a packet of Starburst -- the whole thing.”
And sure enough, when you read the first three ingredients on some of these fruit chews, it reads, “corn syrup, sugar, fruit juice.” Those are the exact same first 3 ingredients in a Starburst.
Looking at the nutrition info, nine pieces of Starburst have 160 calories and 22 grams of sugar. The average amount of sugar in the packs we purchased is 11 grams. The average calorie count per pack is 80. So in most cases, two packets of fruit chews marketed for kids have the same sugar and calorie count as the whole pack of Starburst.
But a big marketing point on the packaging is that these fruit chews provide 100 percent of a child’s daily vitamin C needs. But Feller says that’s no reason to choose fruit chews.
“A child can get an entire day’s worth of vitamin C from just three to four strawberries," she said.
Or one-fourth of an orange or small portions of almost any other fruit. And, for the record, a whole packet of Starburst contains 35 percent of an adult’s vitamin C. I estimate that at around 30 milligrams, which fulfills a child’s RDA of vitamin C. I’m certainly not advocating for a whole packet of Starburst as the best source of your child’s vitamin C, but it’s a reference that brings home the point.
Another point Feller raises, real fruit has fiber that is crucial for children. The fruit gummies have negligible amounts of fiber.
While many packages cite real fruit in the ingredients, in most cases it’s juice from concentrate or puree.
A look at the first three ingredients in each brand we bought gives even more clues that fruit is not the predominate component (ingredients are listed by quantity, so the first ingredient on a package is always the largest component).
Kirkland (Costco) lists apple juice from concentrate, tapioca syrup, sugar and roughly 15 other ingredients. Sunny Select lists corn syrup, sugar, and fruit juice as their first three. Horizon says all its ingredients are organic, but that’s organic tapioca syrup, sugar, syrup solids, plus about 10 others. Welch’s lists fruit puree, corn syrup, and sugar plus roughly 15 more. Kellogg’s starts with corn syrup, sugar, apple puree and adds about 20 or so more. And Target Market select has fruit juice from concentrate (apple, pear), corn syrup, sugar and quite a few other ingredients.
Finally, it’s not just the added empty calories that pose problems. Because the first ingredient is sugar, fruit chews are very tacky and gummy, and get stuck on the teeth. Dentists do not like foods like this, according to Feller.
We reached out to many of the makers of these snacks and here’s what they had to say:
Target: "Target is currently phasing out the Market Pantry fruit-flavored snack packages with a serving size of 26 grams that your nutritionist tested. Our current Market Pantry packages of fruit-flavored snacks have a serving size of 23 grams and depending on the flavor, contain 12 grams of sugar per serving which accounts for approximately 50 calories from sugar."
Annie's Homegrown: "Annie’s Fruit Snacks are a delicious treat that parents and kids both love. Parents love that they are Certified Organic and don’t contain artificial flavors, synthetic colors, or high fructose corn syrup. Kids love the delicious taste and the fun bunny shapes. The labels of Annie’s Fruit Snacks provide accurate information about their ingredients and nutritional content to allow consumers to make informed decisions about Annie's as a snack."
Horizon Organic: Unlike many children’s fruit snack products on the market, Horizon Fruit Snacks feature a great-tasting snack that’s certified organic and free of artificial colors or preservatives. We add natural flavors in the fruit snacks, leading to an overall more kid-friendly flavor profile.
Welch's and Kirkland declined to comment to ABC News.
Sunny Select did not reply.