As a parent of two little ones, I’m always on the lookout for quick, healthy snacks. But as a registered dietitian, I know that most packaged snacks are full of sugar, fillers and preservatives, and lacking real nutrition. So I was intrigued when squeezable vegetable-and-fruit pouches appeared on shelves—especially when I saw that many contained organic produce without refined sugar and had few preservatives. Parents have gone gaga over them, and companies now offer up every imaginable combo, even including Greek yogurt and quinoa. For busy, health-conscious parents, these pouches are gold.
Or are they? When Meghan Fisher’s son Nolan was a toddler, they gave her peace of mind. “Nolan loved all the combos, and because he was a picky eater, I was glad he was getting his daily servings of fruit and veggies,” she says. But now that Nolan is four, and has a little brother, Mason, 2, the Calgary mom realizes she’d been relying too heavily on the pouches and is making a deliberate effort to offer her boys real vegetables and fruit more often. “I want them to know what carrots and broccoli actually taste like, instead of only knowing them in a puréed form,” she says.
Fisher is right—toddlerhood is a critical time for developing lifelong food preferences, so it’s important that young kids are exposed to a variety of whole foods every day. The look, texture and often taste of the food in pouches are different from whole fruit and vegetables, with the true flavour of veggies almost always masked by the sweetness of fruit. The purées are also missing some benefits of fresh produce and sneak in a more concentrated source of sugar. Comparing apples to apples, one popular brand’s 90-gram serving of apple purée contains 13 grams of sugar and 1 gram of fibre, whereas an equal serving of chopped, fresh apple contains 9 grams of sugar and 2 grams of fibre.
Why the difference? Produce is likely puréed without the skin, which lowers the fibre content. And many squeeze packs list “concentrated fruit juice,” which is a fancy term for added sugar. During processing, some of the water from the fruit is removed as well, which concentrates the natural sugar even more, and produces a very sweet product.
Whole fruit and veggies also provide more satiety than their puréed counterparts because they contain more fibre and water, and because they take longer to chew and digest. I see this when my son sucks back a produce pouch in 10 seconds and wants another, yet takes about 10 minutes to finish a pear or peach and feels satisfied afterward.
“Squeeze pouches contribute to the dumbing down of children’s palates,” says Yoni Freedhoff, a family doctor in Ottawa. He’s concerned that by relying on these packaged snacks, parents send their kids the message that preparing real food is too hard, which could lead to a reliance on packaged foods later on.
Consuming produce pouches can also have a negative effect on kids’ teeth, says Calgary dentist Will Tunison. “The sugar sits on their teeth and, over time, causes decay.” Pouches may also use lemon juice concentrate as a preservative, which contains citric acid. “This acid can dissolve tooth structure and lead to cavities,” he explains, suggesting that kids drink water afterward to help wash the acid off their teeth and gums.
I’m also a busy mom, so I get it—serving up fresh fruit and vegetables all of the time isn’t realistic. These pouches are a step up from most packaged snacks but, putting my dietitian hat back on, I recommend offering them no more than three times a week, as long as whole vegetables and fruit are offered most of the time. Teaching kids that all foods can fit in your diet—including some types of convenience foods once in a while—will help them develop healthier relationships with food for life.
EXPERT TIP: Look for pouches containing both vegetables and fruit and aim for no more than 12 grams of sugar and no less than 3 grams of fibre per 120-gram serving. Read the ingredients list and avoid any products containing fruit juice concentrate.
A version of this article appeared in our February 2015 issue with the headline, “Freshly squeezed,” p. 50.