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Can junk food ever really be good for you?

Snack  foods filled with fruits or vegetables are growing trend. But some nutrition experts say their their better-for-you claims may be going too far.
Image: Flat Earth Baked Veggie Crisps
Impossibly Good
/ Source: contributor

At a time when Americans are struggling with obesity and not eating enough vegetables, some major food marketers claim they have an answer. Keen to tap into consumer interest in healthier fare, companies are rolling out snacks sprinkled with what they say are real servings of fruits and veggies.

But nutrition experts say you shouldn't be fooled by their better-for-you promises.

Frito-Lay touts its new line of Flat Earth crisps as “impossibly good” because the baked squares contain more nutrients and less fat than regular snack chips. Kraft's recently launched Nabisco Garden Harvest line of whole-grain chips promises a half-serving of fruit or vegetables in every serving. And the new Jell-O Fruit Passions, also from Kraft, boasts a full serving of fruit per cup.

That’s just the tip of the healthy junk food fad. This year scores of fruit- or veggie-infused products have hit grocery store shelves. The idea behind these snacks is healthier, on-the-go eating. Don’t like broccoli? No time to wash an apple? No problem. Just grab a bag and munch.

Not a real serving?
The Flat Earth baked squares, with names like Peach Mango Paradise and Tangy Tomato Ranch, are made from a blend of rice flour, potato and fruits or vegetables and claim to provide a half-serving of produce per ounce, along with vitamins A or C. But there's some debate over whether the powdered produce in the snacks counts as a real serving.

“So far, no scientific studies have been done to indicate whether the powdered form offers the same health benefits as intact fruit and vegetables,” says Elizabeth Pivonka, president and chief executive of of the nonprofit Produce for Better Health Foundation, the group coordinating the developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We need the intact veggie with fiber, water and nutrients to get the full benefit.” Based on the CDC guidelines, the snacks don’t meet the fruit or vegetable serving requirements, she says.

Frito-Lay company spokeswoman Aurora Gonzalez says the snacks aren’t meant to replace produce. “We’re not saying eat apple crisps in place of an apple,” she says. “We’re saying that if you’re looking for healthier snack options, this is a good one.”

Gonzalez stands by the company’s produce claim, which conforms with U.S. Department of Agriculture food guidelines that flakes and powders do count as a real serving, she says.

Even if the chips do provide a little nutritional boost, they shouldn't be used as substitutes for the real thing, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

“They’re better than snacks void of any nutritional value, but it would be sad if someone eating these chips thinks they’re getting the same benefit as from a fruit or vegetable,” she says.

She favors snacks that combine protein and whole grain carbohydrates — wheat crackers topped with almond butter, for instance — because they satisfy snackers faster, preventing overeating.

Taub-Dix advises chip lovers to choose snack packs with more fiber and less sugar and fat. She also recommends the veggie snacks over the fruit ones because they typically pack less sugar.

Another problem is, to get a full-serving of fruits or veggies from the snacks, you'd have to eat 2 ounces, about 260 calories. A medium apple is only about 70 calories, plus lots of fiber and no fat.

While the new baked veggie snacks contain less fat than fried chips on the market, some have more sodium than most brands of potato chips. For example, an ounce of Snyder's of Hanover EatSmart Veggie Crisps delivers almost three times the sodium of UTZ regular potato chips — 290 mg compared to 96 mg.

Real fruit and vegetables contain very little sodium, and they’re also loaded with fiber and water, which help people feel fuller on fewer calories, aiding weight control. Besides, Pivonka adds, Americans should be eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, not finding excuses to scarf more snacks.

Bridget Murray Law is a freelance writer based in Washington D.C.