As those of you who follow me on Twitter know, I am currently in San Diego for the American Dietetic Association’s annual Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE). Over the past two days, I took you on mini virtual tours of the vendor expo, where we visited the Sugar Association, the High Fructose Corn Syrup folks, Subway, Coca-Cola, and other “what are you doing at a nutrition conference?” booths.
While plenty is ‘blog-worthy’, one particular Mars, Inc. product caught my eye: Marathon Smart Stuff Powered By Snickers bars.
Candy-bar-in-disguise silliness aside, I am more bothered by the fact that Mars, Inc. can say (and this is their “selling point” for the Registered Dietitian community) this product fits the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (AHG) guidelines. Technically, it does. This does not mean Mars, Inc. offers a healthy product , but rather that AHG has very weak criteria.
In short, the AHG is happy to provide a seal of approval — and okay a food product’s presence in school vending machines — if certain macronutrient (fat, carbohydrate, protein) percentages, sodium and calorie limits, and ‘zero grams of trans fat per serving’ requirements are met.
I want to turn your attention to three of the five goals stated by AHG in regards to healthier options at schools:
- PROMOTE the consumption of fruits, vegetables, low-fat and fat-free dairy in schools.
- CHANGE the mix of products in vending machines to increase healthier options.
- REDUCE the amount of fat, sugar, and sodium that kids consume during the school day.
With that in mind, let’s talk some specifics about this “Smart Stuff” bar. While there are three varieties, the Mars Inc. booth was handing out the ‘crunchy chocolate crisp’ variety. It contains seven different ingredients that one can assume are genetically modified:
- Corn flour
- Soy lecithin
- Corn syrup
- Soluble corn fiber
- Soy protein isolate
- Partially hydrogenated soybean oil (trans fat!)
About that last likely-GMO ingredient: how in the world can a product that contains trans fat be considered a “healthy choice”? I get it, technically it contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, so it legally fits the “0 grams of trans fat per serving” rule. Why doesn’t AHG instead demand “no partially hydrogenated oils”, given the vast evidence on how harmful these oils are, even in amounts that may sound insignificant? Never mind the fact that this bar has s much sugar as a cup of Trix, and that the 3 grams of fiber are simply tacked on (isolated fibers do not confer the same nutritional benefits as whole grains).
As for “promoting fruits, vegetables, and dairy”, I don’t see any of that here (is soluble corn fiber supposed to be a ‘vegetable’ and the ‘skim milk powder’ in the caramel an example of dairy?).
Although the Mars, Inc. representative I spoke with at the expo told me she was “pretty sure” these bars are only in middle schools and high schools (one of Mars, Inc.’s commitments is to not market to children under the age of 12), I can’t help but notice — and worry! — AHG has guidelines for elementary schools (all of which this product meets!).
As I made my way through the expo and heard Big Food representatives giddily talk about partnerships with groups like AHG (or how their product “fits the My Plate guidelines“), I sincerely hoped my colleagues would take time to look up the flimsy requirements these partnerships have and recognize the blatant healthwashing that is at hand. We owe it to the younger generations.