A Girl Scout Cookie Gets “Healthwashed,” And Some Musings on Nutritionism and Our Kids

by Bettina Elias Siegel on January 17, 2013

The Girl Scouts organization has been criticized in recent years by some parents, bloggers and activists over the organization’s annual — and quite profitable — cookie sale fundraiser.  The complaints range from the cookies’ artificial and/or unhealthful ingredients, the general promotion of cookie consumption in an era of childhood obesity, and the company’s use of environment-depleting palm oil.

mango creme

Photo: ABC Bakers

In what looks like a lame PR move to counter some of this criticism, this year the organization is including in its cookie line-up a new variety called “Mango Cremes with Nutrifusion,” a nutrient-boosting additive.  The ABC Bakers website (ABC is the manufacturer of all many* Girl Scout cookies) touts the benefits of this “delicious & nutritious” product this way:

We all want to eat with health in mind. Now, you can in a delicious new way with our Mango Cremes with NutriFusion™ Girl Scout Cookies. . . . These tangy, refreshing tropical treats are packed with great taste AND vitamins!

I won’t even bother criticizing this hollow move, as numerous bloggers and commentators have already done so, sometimes using off-color language not suitable for my family-friendly blog.  :-)

What really caught my attention was the fact that there is a company out there called Nutrifusion producing this supplement, a proprietary powder which usually goes by the brand name “Grandfusion.”  The company is, according to its website, the “emerging leader in both the rapidly growing food science and nutritional supplement categories.”  Citing research showing that “only 21% of shoppers are satisfied that manufacturers and retailers are offering enough enhanced foods,” it seeks to fill this void by offering food manufacturers Grandfusion so they can add the “the nutrient-rich benefits of fruits & vegetables” to items such as “breads, muffins, cookies, energy bars, salad dressings, soups, yogurts and beverages.”

Despite the fact that this powder presumably comes from a processing facility**, the company throws around a lot of “real food,” and “whole food” language on its website based on the fact that its process incorporates all parts of the fruits and vegetables used to produce the powder, including the peel and skin.  And while Nutrifusion says it doesn’t promote its Grandfusion powder as a substitute for eating fresh fruits and vegetables, manufacturers incorporating the additive into their products might not be so scrupulous in their advertising.  Here’s what the Girl Scouts say about the Mango Cremes, for example:

Crunchy vanilla and coconut cookies feature a mango-flavored creme filling with all the nutrient benefits of eating cranberries, pomegranates, oranges, grapes, and strawberries!

You can easily see how a less food-savvy parent might conclude that feeding a child Mango Cremes is actually a net positive, the same as offering fruit, when of course a Mango Creme is, in the end, a highly processed, white flour cookie with 8 grams of fat and 11 grams of sugar per serving.

There’s certainly nothing new about nutrient fortification (nor is it always a bad thing) nor is there anything new about “nutritionism,” a term popularized by food author Michael Pollan to describe our society’s overly simplistic way of viewing food’s value based solely on individual nutrients.  But this notion of nutritionism and children’s food is particularly on my mind today following my recent post about my failed attempt to sneak a carrot into my son’s smoothie. (That post generated so many interesting comments, by the way, that I’m going to do a follow-up to talk about some of the issues readers raised.)

For many parents, myself included, getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables can be a real and constant challenge.  There are lots of reasons why this might be so, from a child’s innate aversions or sensitivities to ineffective parenting and feeding techniques.  But some of the “problem,” in my view (and I use “problem” facetiously), lies with the fruits and vegetables themselves.  Here’s what I mean:  Fruits and vegetables are fibrous.  Their flavors are quite complex.  Even the sweetest orange or apple has an underlying tartness that’s integral to its taste — few fruits are uniformly sweet — and vegetables offer even more complex flavors, from the sulfurous notes in broccoli to the bitterness of kale.  Moreover, fruits and vegetables can be wildly unpredictable.  Sometimes the lushest, ripest-looking blackberries in the market turn out to be hard and sour, and that first bite can come as a rude shock to the palate.

Food processing, on the other hand, happily removes every last one of those obstacles to palatability.  When food is cleverly engineered and mass produced, fiber is intentionally removed to promote easier swallowing, faster consumption and better “mouth-feel,” fat, sugar and salt are carefully calibrated to delight the sense of taste, and there is never a hint of deviation or unpredictability from one box of the product to the next. (For more on how food manufacturers work their “magic,” check out David Kessler’s The End of Overeating and also the forthcoming Salt, Sugar, Fat, a new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss, reviewed soon on TLT.)

Ideally, one might prevent one’s child from ever swallowing a mouthful of factory-produced food, but in my experience that’s not only an unrealistic goal, it’s undesirable.  Children live in the real world, a world rife with such food, and I regard it as my responsibility as a parent not to raise them in a “food bubble” but to arm them with the tools to navigate that environment for a lifetime.  That said, once children have experienced the pleasures of highly processed foods, even in relatively small quantities, I  believe those experiences make it that much harder for them to accept the “imperfect” tastes and textures of fresh produce, at least in children already predisposed to resist it.

And that’s where companies like Nutrifusion are ready to jump into the breach.  Here’s another research nugget offered on its website:

70% of parents are more concerned about the health content of foods and drinks they purchase for their children than those they buy for themselves.

That’s exactly right.  We do care deeply about what we feed our kids.  And as my smoothie post made clear, it’s about a thousand times easier to give your kid a packaged snack festooned with guilt-assuaging “nutritionism” claims than it is to get a veggie-resistant child to eat a carrot.   There’s never a struggle to get most kids to try a test-marketed, vitamin-fortified-salty-sweet-cheesy-whatever.  There’s no wrestling with philosophical questions about food sneaking.  There’s no pushing anyone (parent or child) out of their comfort zone.  And on a purely practical level, there’s no labor-intensive slicing, peeling, cooking or smoothie-making either.

Feeding kids well in today’s food environment can be very hard work.  Parents get tired.  I know I certainly get tired.  But that fatigue is exactly the lucrative marketing opportunity that Nutrifusion and other hawkers of pills and powders are counting on.  So let’s not give in to the healthwashing.  Armed with our carrot peelers and apple corers, supported by each other here (and on other great blogs like It’s Not About Nutrition, 100 Days of Real Food, Real Mom Nutrition, and Red, Round or Green), let’s continue to do what we can to teach our kids the pleasures of real “real food,” and try to resist the easy out that nutritionism offers us.

[Thanks to TLT reader Kim Spearn for sharing the Mango Creme story with me.  Little did she know the rant it would inspire.  :-) ]

[Editorial Update:  Thanks to blogger Bri at Red, Round or Green, on 1/18/13 I corrected this post to indicate that ABC Bakers does not produce ALL Girl Scout cookies.  In some regions, they are made by Little Brownie Bakers.  I've also learned that not all varieties of Girl Scout cookies are offered in all parts of the country, so some of you may never encounter a Mango Creme.  Whether you think that's a good thing or not is a matter of opinion. :-) ]

[Editorial Update:  My original post speculated that Nutrifusion presumably comes from a lab but on 1/24/13, at the request of William Grand, president of Nutrifusion,  I corrected this post to indicate that the Nutrifiusion powder comes from a "processing facility." Mr. Grand's guest post responding to this post may be found here.]

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Bri January 17, 2013 at 12:28 pm

1) Thanks for the shout-out, Bettina, as always!
2) I totally agree with you about, well, everything. :-) The idea of “Nutrifusion” and the Girl Scouts — in many ways, a beloved organization to me as both a former Scout and a former employee — hawking cookies as having “health benefits” is immeasurably distasteful and disappointing.
3) I may as well be the one to do the (teensy) fact check for you before somebody else does — ABC Bakers does MANY Girl Scout cookies, but actually, there are two bakeries that make Girl Scout cookies, depending upon your region. ABC is offering the nutriwashed Mango Creme debacle this cookie season. Other areas of the country, whose cookies are supplied by Little Brownie Bakers, have something called the “Thank U Berry Much,” with cranberries and white chocolate. Just a heads-up! :-)

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Bettina Elias Siegel January 17, 2013 at 12:45 pm

Thank you for that fact-check! I’ve only ever seen ABC Bakers. And I love “nutriwashed!”

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Deanna January 17, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Thank you for this post! You reflect my concerns exactly. And in a much nicer, less snarky way :-)

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Alison Moore Smith January 17, 2013 at 12:45 pm

[Wow, this was much more lengthly than I intended. My apologies in advance. I won't clog your post any further!]

…it’s about a thousand times easier…

Bettina, I think this phrase is the critical one.

I have six kids, ages 9–25. We are very health conscious, meaning about 95% of our food is made up of lean meats, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Most is cooked from scratch, including a lot of the (100% whole wheat) bread we eat.

Honestly, I just don’t think the plethora of crap available is that big of a deal. I say “no.” After about 20 times, kids actually understand that you mean it — assuming you do mean it and stop going for the “easy” fix of giving in. Even strong willed kid usually aren’t stupid.

I haven’t purchased Girl Scout cookies since my 25-year-old was a Brownie (even though we see them outside the store every year — and I say “no”), but even then, they were eaten as a small, rare treat amidst meals of good food.

Foods aren’t inherently evil to me. Most can be consumed safely IF in appropriate quantity and proportion. If the vast majority of food is highly nutritious, then a few treats now and then won’t seriously impact overall health.

I have a 12-year-old boy who is growing like a weed. He eats all day long. On Thursdays he attends some activity classes with a bunch of other homeschoolers, so I pack a lunch. Today he has:

sliced turkey, lettuce, tomato, on whole wheat bread sandwich
carrots
celery with organic peanut butter (no oil or salt added)
banana
clementine
greek yogurt
7 whole grain baked tortilla chips
coconut granola bar
water

He will eat the entire lunch and when I pick him up at 3:30, he’ll be starving. But after classes we go to the library and then to his ballroom class and don’t get home until about 6:30 for dinner.

At dinner, he’ll have crock pot pork loin with vegetables, wrapped in a whole grain tortilla and fresh guacamole.

BUT — here’s the kicker — in between class and dinner I will probably pick him up a snack to tide him over. I MIGHT make something to take — which I do about half the time — but I MIGHT get him a 7-layer burrito at Taco Bell or a junior bacon cheeseburger at Wendy’s or something else.

And I’m totally OK with that. If he gets a not-so-healthy snack amidst all his good food once every two weeks, I think it’s FINE.

So, even though I don’t buy Girl Scout cookies myself, I have no problem with them being sold and I trust that people will make decent choices.

I suppose the bottom line is that I think we need to stress the need for parents to be responsible — rather than taking the “easy” way out — in all areas of life, feeding included.

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Bettina Elias Siegel January 17, 2013 at 9:40 pm

Alison: No worries about clogging my post! I appreciate your comment and don’t think you and I really differ in our views very much. To clarify: our family’s diet, like yours, is quite healthy overall and like you I also feel that kids shouldn’t be shielded from all junk junk food. (We don’t do fast food but, believe me, my kids certainly get their share of cupcakes from our favorite bakery, candy (the good stuff we buy and the crappy stuff they sometimes get elsewhere), fried chips when we eat out at Mexican restaurant, etc.) And I’m not one of the Girl Scout critics who think they need to stop selling their cookies, though it would be nice if they were motivated to offer a higher quality, all natural product. My point is that (a) most families are not like ours in terms of what they eat or what they know about food, and for them it is all too easy to be lured into feeling good about feeding their kids packaged foods with questionable nutrient claims like the ones applied to the Mango Cremes; and (b) I’m the first to admit that in most (but not all) cases my kids would probably choose a processed snack over fresh fruit if both were lying on a table at a party. That’s despite the fact that they clearly understand the benefits of the healthier choice and are exposed to those choices all the time in my home. So I’m asking myself, why is that? And I do think the “hyper-palatability” (to use David Kessler’s term) of processed foods, which in many ways differs from the complexity of whole foods, plays a role. Does that make sense?

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Michael Galli January 17, 2013 at 5:25 pm

Holy cow! great article! Always liked your writing style and of course the content, but this one you knocked out of the park.

Please consider publishing your blog through Google+ as well as you current social sites (Facebook,Twitter, etc.) There is a huge community of chefs, food bloggers, and parents who contribute immensely to the topics you cover. I have worked in Student Nutrition for a public school district, and currently I do the same for a private school. Many of the parents of my students follow me on Google+ and when I find nuggets like your articles I like to share. And the overall engagement for topics like this are much better than the closed environment of Facebook.

Keep up this awesome work!

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Bettina Elias Siegel January 17, 2013 at 9:25 pm

Michael, thank you for these kind words! So appreciated. But you also made me groan because I just haven’t been able to get my head around mastering ANOTHER social network and therefore have steadfastly avoided Google Plus. But you’re encouraging me to go take a peek . . . In fact, if you see this comment and want to take a second to explain to me why it’s a less closed environment than FB, I’d love to know more.

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Michael Galli January 17, 2013 at 9:50 pm

I completely understand the groan-factor: Oh, no. another social network! I believe it will be worth the effort, BUT only when you’re ready! I will send you some links that can explain how to set up a G+ Page, it’s a lot like your Facebook page for TLT. Then when you are ready you can make that leap. Meanwhile, I hope you don’t mind that I share weblinks back to your site here.

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Bettina Elias Siegel January 17, 2013 at 10:00 pm

To the contrary, I love that you’re sharing them. And I look forward to your links. I do have a personal G+ page that I used once or twice and then slinked away . . . :-)

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Sally Kuzemchak January 17, 2013 at 8:12 pm

I love and agree wholeheartedly with this post, Bettina! It drives me CRAZY when food marketers say things like “all the nutrition of strawberries!” as if eating strawberries was such a chore. As if children should prefer a fortified cookie over fresh fruit. I hate this new cookie and find the whole thing–the way it’s marketed, the way it’s fortified, the whole “nutrifusion” business– incredibly offensive to our intelligence as parents.

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Bettina Elias Siegel January 17, 2013 at 9:20 pm

Sally, thank you! And well said. :-)

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Kirby January 17, 2013 at 10:35 pm

I’m not so upset about the cookie as a cookie, more that they think adding something “nutritious” is going to make it more marketable. A cookie is a cookie, no matter how you try to make it healthy. Just use moderation.

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Heidi January 18, 2013 at 1:17 pm

Fantastic post, Betina. Curious if you’ve done a post on Jessica’s Seinfeld’s cookbook. Same idea. I’m sometimes curious if the reason my child will—thankfully—eat just about anything (except meat), is that I ate such a variety of foods while nursing her, often with less than pleasant results for her later that day. But…I digress. Thanks for this thought-provoking discussion.

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Bettina Elias Siegel January 18, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Hi Heidi! So nice of you to visit TLT! I did write about her book, Deceptively Delicious, in the context of a larger post on “food sneaking” which you can read here.

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Heidi January 18, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Oh yes. I read and loved that post – saw it on your FB page. Must have been what made me think of Deceptively Delicious in the first place – oops. Great blog you have here!

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Bettina Elias Siegel January 18, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Thank you!

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Laci Hansard January 18, 2013 at 2:43 pm

The Mango cookies are terrible. Our troop leaders warned us ahead of time, when sample cookies were sent home with the girls. My daughter spit it out! I am celiac, my kids eat gluten-free/paleo 90% of the time. a cookie is a real treat! They gave us words to use such as “refreshing” when describing the new cookie. :)

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Bettina Elias Siegel January 18, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Oh, I don’t know about that marketing. When I want a cookie, “refreshment” isn’t really what I’m seeking. :-) But I should render no judgment I’ve never tried the Mango Cremes. I’m a Thin Mint girl, myself!

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Midge Elias January 19, 2013 at 5:22 am

This is a brilliantly written post, and so important!

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mommm!!! January 20, 2013 at 10:24 pm

I totally get the fatigue around feeding your kids healthy 100% of the time. And of course that’s no accident. “Food Science” is an actual degree, where people with a bachelors in this field can regularly get a starting salary of 70 to 100k a year with companies like Kraft, etc. The job is pretty simple outside of the actual chemistry involved and that is to find shortcuts to make processed food cheaper, to make it last longer, and to make it nothing short of addicting. The addiction bit exploits what is referred to as the pleasure trap. Without getting all technical, we derive a spike in pleasure from eating certain things that makes us want more. Food scientists exploit this by creating flavors in labs that are aimed directly at this little nugget. They even design those flavors to be gone in just a second so that you will reach in the bag and pop another of whatever it is you’re eating over and over again.

I disagree with your premise that the problem might be the fruits and vegetables themselves. I think it’s important to buy only the produce that is actually in season. Buying out of season produce will probably increase your chances of getting rock hard berries that look ripe. And chemically ripened produce doesn’t taste real, in my opinion. Also, I buy locally as often as possible. Less traveled in season produce gets eaten in my house at a much faster rate than the beautifully red and perfect strawberries that are rock hard and sour. Also, out of season and unripe produce that ‘looks’ ripe could be more fibrous than the same product bought in season. Anyway, you get my point.

That being said, we don’t have the scouts cookie issue because we don’t support an organization that is openly bigoted. My child cites this as the reason for not buying them whenever we’re approached coming out of a grocery store or by my friends peddling this crap for their kids. And I have to admit I really love watching the jaw drop response he gets. So thankfully, we could care less about scouts cookies.

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Caroline January 22, 2013 at 11:26 am

Hey Moommm,

To be fair, the girl scouts are not managed by the same organization as the boy scouts and have a much better track record for social progressiveness. Girl Scouts:
1. Allow trans children into troops
2. Teach comprehensive sex education
3. Promote feminist history lessons and celebrate heros of womens rights

I wouldn’t tar them with the same brush as the boy scouts, who are notoriusly anti gay.

PS THIS COOKIE SOUNDS HORRIBLE

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mommm!!!! February 10, 2013 at 10:39 pm

I responded with a post in response to this but it seems to be missing and I have not received notice that is was otherwise offensive or moderated or what have you. ?????

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Bettina Elias Siegel February 11, 2013 at 11:31 am

Mommmm. I haven’t deleted any comments of yours – everything that’s come through to me has been posted. I’m sorry if there’s been a Wordpress glitch – please feel free to repost.

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mommm!!!! February 15, 2013 at 8:47 pm

Eh…no worries. It was mostly just a bunch of blahblahblah….with a link to a website rebuking Caroline’s post about how the Girls Scouts ACTUALLY treat non hetero types officially. I’m not that concerned. But thank you! :)

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Amy January 23, 2013 at 7:54 am

Great post, Bettina. I have long been distressed by those well-meaning and enthusiastic Girl Scouts shilling cheap cookies to finance their troops (as well as the mother ship). This new cookie sounds like a disaster, and it will quickly be shelved (probably), but the organization will be able to point to it as an example of listening to its audiences.

I just give the kids money and turn down the cookies. And I make a point of telling the parents who accompany the kids that I’m happy to support the Girl Scouts, but don’t want to bring those cookies into my home in hopes that they will pass the message on up the chain of command.

However, lest you think I am a Puritan, I have been known to eat an entire sleeve of Thin Mints. Perhaps my lack of self-control contributes to my decision not to let them in my home (and the resulting headache from all the chemicals)…

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Honey January 31, 2013 at 8:20 pm

I am glad you’re willing to support the Girl Scouts – I really appreciate that, but as a GS parent, I’m here to tell you that any message passed on up the chain of command will likely be ignored.

And you’re right, this cookie will be used, just as the low-fat and measured calorie pack versions of the last few years, as an example of how the company “listened” to their audiences.

But the reason it will be shelved will be because even though they listened, it didn’t sell well and they will launch something new. The “healthy” cookie consistently falls at the sad sorry bottom of the sales chart…as it should. Because while GS cookies are not for everyone, they are cookies. They are a treat. They are not celery (and I like celery!) and thus, they are not healthy. And that’s ok. Because every now and then, treats are fun.

Here’s the NI and ingredient list for your Thin Mints by the way: http://www.abcsmartcookies.com/thin-mints

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Cammy February 1, 2013 at 10:57 pm

You know what would be fun? Looking at a box of Girl Scout cookies from the 1930s when I’m sure the ingredients for a typical shortbread cookie would be simply sugar, flour, butter, baking powder, vanilla and eggs….Geez, now wouldn’t it be nice if we went back to the 5 ingredient rule?

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Bettina Elias Siegel February 5, 2013 at 10:38 pm

I’d feel a lot better about eating my usual sleeve of Thin Mints!

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mommm!!!! February 8, 2013 at 10:29 am

Cammy….great idea so I looked it up and you were spot on. Here lookit…
http://www.examiner.com/article/girl-scout-cookie-ingredients-then-versus-now

It says:
“For an idea of how much things have changed over the years, here is a list of ingredients from the first Girl Scout cookies of the 1920’s and 1930’s:

Flour, butter, sugar, eggs, milk, real vanilla, salt, baking powder (generally this was sodium bicarbonate and corn starch)

Here is a list of ingredients from modern shortbread cookies (the cookies that have the least amounts of chemicals, food coloring and other unnatural ingredients of modern Girl Scout cookies):

Enriched flour, sugar, palm oil, whey, corn syrup, sodium bicarbonate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, natural and artificial flavor, corn starch, salt, soy lecithin”

Ack! palm oil…..

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