Food marketers are the source of endless innovation in their quest to "add value" to commodity products so that we consumers will pay more. Novelty sells, so supermarket shelves see a constant rotation of foods, beverages, and supplements in new flavors (think Lay's Chicken & Waffles potato chips) and different forms (think gummy vitamins), shouting out different beneficial claims ("50 percent of the daily value for fiber per serving!") in an attempt to secure a spot in our shopping carts.
In my humble opinion, the following products probably shouldn't have made it to see the light of day:
1. Reduced-fat peanut butter. I get it. Americans love peanut butter, but it has a lot of calories due to its high fat content. Wouldn't it be great, some clever marketer once thought, if we could tweak a peanut butter to reduce its fat content? The devil, unfortunately, is in the details: Reduced-fat peanut butter, it turns out, has no fewer calories than regular peanut butter. Why? Because when you remove all that fat, it needs to be replaced with something to take up space and maintain the creamy product texture. So companies replaced it with corn starches and sugars.
The result is not only a product with the same amount of calories, but a less favorable nutritional profile. Reduced-fat peanut butter has fewer of peanuts' heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and more of the refined carbs and sugar that spike blood sugar. It's a nutritionally bankrupt swap if ever there was one. This is a product that simply should not exist.
For my weight-loss patients in need of a lower-calorie substitute for peanut butter, a powdered peanut product like PB2 is a far better choice. Defatted peanuts are made into a flour and can then be reconstituted with water to make a peanut butter-like spread. With 45 calories per 2 tablespoons (vs. 200 calories in an equivalent amount of real peanut butter), this is actually a worthwhile, lower-fat alternative when one is needed.
2. Slow-release iron supplements. Some people complain that iron supplements make them nauseous, so several companies devised iron pills with "enteric coating"—a durable shell formulated to survive the acidic stomach environment and break down slowly as it travels the length of the intestines, where iron release is spread out and won't upset a sensitive tummy.
[See Upset Stomach Remedies]
The problem, unfortunately, is that most of our body's iron receptors live in the very short segment of the small intestine that immediately follows the stomach. Most dietary iron is absorbed in this location, called the duodenum. That means that if a pill is designed to bypass the duodenum, most of the iron it carries is destined to go unabsorbed.
Furthermore, acid is needed to convert supplemental iron into a more absorbable form; no contact with stomach acid means that even iron that does make contact with a receptor further down the line is less likely to be absorbable. For these two reasons, slow-release iron supplements make little sense for someone who actually requires supplemental iron. Rather than go through the ceremonial swallowing of these pills, you might as well skip that step and just flush them directly down the toilet.
3. "Diet" oatmeal. If ever there was a perfect breakfast for dieters, then minimally-processed whole oats would have to be it. Products with a single ingredient listed—whole grain oats—are a good source of calorie-free fiber, particularly the viscous soluble variety that lingers longer in your stomach to help keep you feeling fuller longer. It's a slow-digesting carb that doesn't spike blood sugar, helping control hunger and carb cravings later in the morning. And calorie-wise, you can enjoy an entire, hearty cup of it—with a serving of fruit—for a waist-friendly 300 calories.
So perhaps someone can explain the wisdom of adulterating this pure, perfect food into diet versions whose ingredient lists contain close to 20 ingredients, including artificial flavors and sweeteners and fillers like corn-derived maltodextrin, in place of some of the satiating, nutrient-dense oats?
4. "Baby" and "toddler" juice. Some brands market fruit juices aimed at babies and toddlers. They make claims to have 40 to 50 percent less sugar than other juice, which would suggest that somehow they are substantively different (or better) than juice.
In fact, the reason these juices have 40 to 50 percent less sugar is because they contain 40 to 50 percent more water. In other words, the manufacturer dilutes pure juice with added water and then sells it to you as a lower-sugar product. By this logic, eating a half of a cookie has 50 percent fewer calories than eating a whole cookie, or drinking 4 ounces of pure juice has 50 percent less sugar than drinking 8 ounces of pure juice. The nutritional street cred of the product doesn't change just because the portion does.
Juice is no friend to a young child's developing teeth (and when served in a bottle, can actively contribute to bottle rot). It contributes filling but empty calories to the diet that crowd out more nutrient-dense foods, which can actually make picky eaters pickier.
It may also be a contributing factor to becoming overweight. If you choose to serve juice to your child, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting intake to 4 ounces per day. Save yourself money by mixing 4 ounces of "adult juice" with another 4 ounces of water rather than buying the diluted stuff.
At the end of the day, juice isn't necessary (or frankly, advisable) as a regular part of a baby, toddler, or child's diet—even if said child is a picky eater, and you're worried that she or he isn't getting enough vitamins.
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Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a NYC-based registered dietitian whose clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, Celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.