National Consumers League

Labels reveal nutritional minefield in afterschool snacks


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By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director Like many Americans, I like having nutritional labels on the foods. And I pride myself on being savvy enough to read them carefully and parse out the fat, sodium, protein, and calories and most importantly, how many servings per container.  In that spirit, I recently arrived home triumphantly clutching a new item that would serve as alternative to the Lean Pocket afterschool snacks I usually buy for my 14-year-old son. He wants something quick and tasty, and I want something that gives him good nutritional. Lean Pockets are pretty good on calories and fat, but they have 490 or so milligrams of sodium per serving, and each package has 2 servings, and my growing kid eats the whole thing without blinking. A recent New York Times article this week described the food industry’s growing resistance to government and consumer groups’ demands that the amount of sodium be reduced in processed foods. As the article noted, “By all appearances, this is a moment of reckoning for salt. High blood pressure is rising among adults and children. Government health experts estimate that deep cuts in salt consumption could save 150,000 lives a year.” So my organic alternative quesadillas looked like a great option; they had same number of calories, cost the same, but had 1/3 the sodium per serving. I grabbed the box from the freezer and asked my kid to read over the ingredients so he could see why I chose the organic version. But he quickly pointed out that the so-called healthier choice was a 3- serving a box cheese quesadilla at 260 calories a serving – that’s 780 calories for a snack! And nearly 600 mg of sodium at three times 190 mg of sodium per serving (600 mg is one fourth of the daily recommended allowance for salt). This compared to the Lean Pockets snack, which, granted, has way too much sodium at 710 mg per serving but only 330 calories, 7 grams of fat and a whopping 20 grams of protein. I thought the organic alternative was Lean Pockets' superior equivalent, but how wrong I was! So all in all, the Lean Pockets are a healthier choice (despite having about 110 mg more of sodium). Unfortunately I had exuberantly purchased five of the organic quesadillas, only to have to exchange them for our old standby. Which just tells you that even a consumer advocate, who should know better, can misread labels and make poor choices. Let the buyer beware, I say, and to my fellow consumers, first read those labels carefully but before you make a final choice, consider having a 14-year-old check your work!