Thursday, April 30, 2009

Kraft Defends "Lunchables"

How do you defend a food product targeted to kids that's high in sugar and calories and low in nutrition? You don't. You try to confuse the issue by talking about other food products.

That summarizes Kraft's response to my questions about the bologna-and-cheese "Lunchable" I wrote about in my last post.

Sydney Lindner, associate director, corporate affairs for Kraft, called my attention in an email to a subset of this combination lunch product--and of other Kraft foods--that are labeled "Sensible Solution." More about how they define those in a minute. Here's what Lindner had to say, in part:

"With kid-favorite foods conveniently packed together, quality Oscar Mayer meats and Kraft cheeses, and prices comparable to other lunchtime options, Lunchables Lunch Combinations are an incredible value. Nutritionally, the majority (italics mine) of Lunchables products have less calories than the daily recommended intake per meal and many (my italics again) meet Kraft's Sensible Solutions guidelines."

Got that? First of all, calling a product an "incredible value" wheb its components can be purchased, at retail, for less than half the price of the combo, is truly "incredible:" incredibly profitable. As for the rest of that comment, Lindner is saying that the bologna-and-cheese Lunchable doesn't meet Kraft's so-called sensible guidelines. So what should it be labeled? Unreasonable food? Ridiculously non-nutritious food? Maybe with just a skull-and-crossbones to warn you off?

As for it's sensible guidelines, a Kraft "convenient meal product" earns the label "sensible" if it meets one of the following criteria:
  • Free of, low in, or at least 25% less, when compared to similar products in the category, in at least (or just) one of the following: calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar or sodium
  • Or, contain less than 35% calories from fat
  • Or, meets the definition of lean or extra lean
Translation: A "Lunchable" can be called "sensible" if it's less a junk food than other Lunchables.

A Lunchable can also get the sensible designation if Kraft supplements it with 10% of daily needs of a few vitamins or minerals, and the food does not exceed 600 calories/serving and 960 mg of sodium, among other sky-high limits.

Kraft also, by the way, pats itself on the back for advertising only Sensible Solution products to children between 6 and 12. Teenagers are obviously open season.

What's truly sad is that Kraft was actually honored in 2005 at a Nutrition & Obesity Summit convened by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for creating its Sensible Solution products.

What would truly be honorable for Kraft would be to totally overhaul the contents of all its Lunchables or ditch them completely. That might actually do some good.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"Lunchables" Should Carry a Health Warning

I'm working on a book about food shopping, and that is taking me to parts of the supermarket I usually ignore. In particular, I focused on a section of the meat case set aside specifically for Oscar Mayer's kid-targeted "Lunchables."

These supposedly all-in-one lunches look cheap: only $2.99.

But after I read the labels and had a look at what was inside, I saw that these are actually expensive, high-profit combos whose ingredients are worth no more than $1.50. Plus, they are so empty of good nutrition and full of fat and sugar that they should carry a health alert to warn parents off.

Something like: Warning: Lunchables may make your children fat and add to their risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Judge for yourself. "Cracker Snackers, Bologna & American," consists of:
  • 6 Ritz crackers
  • 1.5 oz. processed American cheese
  • 1.5 oz. bologna
  • 1 "fun-size" Butterfinger--the size you give away at Halloween
  • a 6 oz. Capri Sun "Flavored Water Beverage"
This tiny lunch will leave almost any child hungry an hour later while jolting their body with 23 grams, or nearly 6 teaspoons, of sugar. (1 tsp. sugar = 4 grams)

Overall, there are 410 calories in that "lunch" because of the unconscionably high amount of fat and sugar it contains. Everything in the package except the cheese is sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. The Capri Sun also contains the artificial sweetener, sucralose, just in case it wasn't already sweet enough. (The taste made me gag.)

The total fat content is 20 grams, 9 of them saturated, no surprise since these "foods" contain unhealthy oils including cottonseed and hydrogenated palm kernel oil. There's even half a gram of trans fat.

An adult eating this will take in 35% of their total recommended daily intake of salt. For a child, depending on age, it could be an even higher percentage, but the standard nutrition label is based only on an adult eating 2,000 calories a day.

Kraft, which owns Oscar Mayer, fully expects that kids will be eating this "lunch." The company shamelessly promotes it to kids by putting it in a box whose graphics tie into the x-box game, Banjo-Kazooie, and a chance to win a Banjo Bash party.

The only good thing kids will get out of this combo is 13 grams of protein, usually the one nutrient Americans never lack.

Dietary fiber? None. And if you recognize most of the names in the ingredients list you must be a chemist.

Parents, beware. The apparent convenience of a "Lunchable" carries an invisible price: your child's health.

I'll report soon on what Kraft has to say about this product.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Yogurt Not Required to Have Beneficial Bacteria

In another move that forces consumers to work harder to get healthy food, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently proposed that food companies can continue to call a product "yogurt" even though it doesn't contain any live cultures of beneficial bacteria.

You can't make yogurt without adding active, live cultures to milk or cream, but you can then kill them off with heat in further processing.

It's the cultures that give yogurt its tart taste and creamy texture. Credible research has found that the bacteria benefit the human gut, helping people who have constipation, diarrhea, lactose intolerance, or other more serious conditions like colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease. They also restore the good bacteria in your gut that get killed, along with the ones that are making you sick, when you take antibiotics.

The cultures also help cure vaginal yeast infections.

In its published response to a petition asking that yogurt, by definition, mean a product with live cultures, the FDA acknowledged that most people think of yogurt as a health food. But the bureaucrats went on to say they weren't convinced that consumers really understood about the connection to live cultures.

So, as before, they propose leaving the burden on shoppers to read each label to be sure they're getting live cultures.

Food companies will continue to be able to call their product yogurt even though the bacteria have been killed off in the making of the final product.

The National Yogurt Association--whose members include companies like Dannon--is attempting to make the shopping search easier with a special live culture logo.

But if you haven't read yogurt labels recently, take a few minutes to do so next time you buy some. Despite the healthy connotations, a lot of flavored yogurt is full of sugar--anywhere from 4 to 6 teaspoons per container, corn starch thickeners, coloring, etc.

Furthermore, the proposed new standard of identity for yogurt would remove the requirement that artifically sweetened yogurt declare that fact on the main label, saying for example, "Low-fat Yogurt Sweetened with Aspartame." Again, to find out what sweetener was used, you'll have to read the ingredients label.

The period for comments to the FDA technically ended at the end of March, but the FDA has been fiddling around with the yogurt standard for years and years. So, send them a comment anyway, either by fax at 301–827–6870, or via an Internet comment portal. If you use the portal, enter Docket No. FDA–2000–P–0126.

Here's a tip to save you money while eating the healthiest commerical yogurt possible: Buy plain yogurt with active cultures and add fruit, honey and other goodies yourself. You can also easily make your own and save even more.

But thanks again, FDA. We've got nothing better to do than stand in the supermarket aisles reading labels.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Beware Bank CDs Automatic Roll-Overs

With lots of people, including me, feeling queasy about the stock market, conservative bank Certificates of Deposit are looking pretty good--or at least safe.

But banks have a sneaky way of bumping up their profits on CDs: when they mature, they roll them over into the lowest interest rate they offer. That is, unless you get in touch and demand the best rate.

A banking insider clued me in to this scam. You start off being smart, putting your money into the highest-interest CD you can find. Could be via the Internet, could be you walked into the bank. Great.

What you probably didn't realize was that to capture your money, the bank offered you their best possible rate.

But when the term is up, the bank hopes you'll forget about or just let it ride, assuming that because they had a good rate before, they'll give you a good rate now. That's when they get you.

Banks don't offer everyone the same interest rate for the same term. The've become like the airline industry, with prices changing constantly. Same thing with the banks. You don't know what interest a bank will pay, unless you ask and specifically for the highest rate possible.

I realized this recently when I checked on the maturity date of a 6-month CD I bought on line from HSBC. Fortunately, the banks are required to send you notice of maturity. But when I looked on the web site to see what the new interest rate would be, there was nothing--no information.

Turns out, that's standard operating procedure.

When I called customer service for HSBC, I learned that the best interest rate they would offer me on a new 6-month CD was 1.25%. That's almost 50% less than the top interest being offered by other banks! Wow! What's amazing is that when I bought the CD 6 months ago, HSBC had one of the highest rates available--4%. No longer.

You can find out who has the highest rates from listings that appear in most local newspapers, or via

So keep a careful schedule of when your CDs mature. Be prepared to demand the highest rate from the existing bank, and shop around to make sure they're offering you a good deal.