You're seeking a healthy snack and a Nutri-Grain bar is looking mighty tempting. The name has "nutri" in it. The packaging looks health-friendly and by gosh, it has a "fruit filling." What could be wrong with that? Well before you throw it in the cart, here's a list of exactly what's in that innocent looking snack.
The outer portion contains:
Whole grain oats, enriched flour (which is really processed flour-- notice it's not "whole wheat flour") enriched with niacin, reduced iron, vitamin B1, vitamin B3 and folic acid, then later comes whole wheat flour and soybean oil.
So far, all that isn't too bad, although "whole wheat" should have come before, or totally substituted for, the enriched flour. But now here come the extra ingredients and additives with brief explanations, in order of appearance on the label:
tBHQ (added to the soybean oil) - Short for tertiary butylhydroquinone, this common antioxidant additive keeps the soybean oil from going rancid in your snack bar and increasing shelf life. A 2004 study in the Journal of Drug Metabolism and Disposition showed that tBHQ might have tumor promoting properties. A 1993 study published in the journal Carcinogenesis found that esophageal, nodal and stomach papillomas (benign tumors) were increased in rats given tBQH.
Citric acid (added to the soybean oil) - Also used to keep the soybean oil fresh.
High Fructose Corn Syrup - Um, haven't we heard enough about this cheap, unnecessary, man-made refined corn syrup, which has been implicated to possibly cause diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome and liver disease? Yes, this Nutri-Grain bar still contains it. It's time for us to write Kellogg's.
Soluble corn fiber - A popular filler in snack and pet foods.
Sugar - For sweetening, aren't the HFCS, blueberry filling and glycerol enough?
Calcium carbonate - A filler, preservative and color-retainer used in foods and drinks, paints supplements and many other products.
Whey - A protein derivative of milk that adds nutrients to foods.
Wheat bran - Adds fiber, protein and minerals.
Salt - For flavor.
Cellulose - Several functions, including flavor enhancer and preservative.
Potassium carbonate - Anti-caking preservative.
Propylene glycol - This solvent for food colorings and flavorings is GRAS ("generally recognized as safe") and according to a 1995 study published by the World Health Organization, would have to be given in huge amounts to cause a health hazard.
Mono and diglycerides - According to the Codex Alimentarius, this additive is used for anticaking, antifreezing, bleaching, preserving and raising. These are partially digested fats of either plant or animal sources that have not been found to be detrimental in human consumption by a study by the International Programme on Chemical Safety.
Soy lecithin - Used as an emulsifier or lubricant, sometimes reducing the need for eggs and fats in baked goods. Seen as GRAS.
Natural and artificial flavor - The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations lists natural flavors as real "essences" or "extracts." Artificial flavors are obviously chemically made.
Wheat gluten - To add protein content to foods.
Cornstarch - Used as a thickener to help keep fruit filling gelatinous.
Niacinamide - A form of Vitamin B3.
Vitamin A palmitate - Form of Vitamin A.
Carrageenan - Thickener derived from red seaweed.
Zinc oxide - Added mineral for nutrition.
Reduced iron - Added mineral for nutrition, although this is not the most absorbable type.
Guar gum - Thickener from the endosperm of guar beans.
Next on the list are Vitamins B6, B1, B2 and folic acid.
And now for the filling:
High fructose corn syrup - Don't you just love how HFCS is the FIRST ingredient on this list? (The first ingredient is the one the food has the most of.)
Corn syrup - Wow, this is a great second ingredient, as if HFCS was not enough unnatural sweetening.
Blueberry puree concentrate - This would have made a good first ingredient.
Glycerin - Used as a filler and sweetener.
Sugar - I thought we already had HFCS, corn syrup and blueberry concentrate in as our first stop three ingredients.
Sodium alginate - A sodium salt derived from the cell walls of brown algae and used; for viscosity and as an emulsifier.
Natural flavor - Extracts or essences from the desired natural product/food.
Artificial flavor - Write the manufacturer and let them know you would prefer to not be kept in the dark as to what kinds of "artificial flavors" are being used.
Citric acid - Chemical that gives fruit its sour tastes.
Methylcellulose - Thickener and emulsifier from cellulose.
Calcium phosphate - Cow's milk and teeth have abundant CaPO4. In foods, this compound is used in baked foods as a raising agent.
Malic acid - The tart taste isolated from apples and other fruits.
Red No. 40 and Blue No. 1 - Now derived from petroleum, chemical food colorings have been suspected to be a cause of hyperactivity in children and colon cancer, and death in those very ill and hospitalized. More studies are needed to know for sure what these artificial colors can cause.
So. Think your Nutri-Grain bar is a healthy choice after all? Well, while it's better than candy, it could be much better off without the HFCS, sugar, colors and some of the additives that seem a little heavy on the "thickening and emulsifying" side of things. Emerging studies on some of these additives indicate that this is not what Mother Nature intended. "Additives should be avoided when possible," says Courtney Stinson RD of Savorlife Nutrition. "We aren't designed to ingest them. "What increases the shelf life of food usually decreases the 'shelf life' of our bodies," Stinson says.
What can we do about it? For one, stop buying products with a lot of additives, colors and HFCS. Write the manufacturers of your favorite snacks, in this case Kellogg's, ask them to reduce the sugars, processed flours and additives, and tell them you wouldn't mind paying just a little more for a product you can call "healthy." If that doesn't work, look around at labels for a better one.
Catherine S. Hains, MS RD has been interested in health and nutrition since she was a young child. Growing up in Fort Worth, TX, she earned a Bachelor's Degree in Broadcast Journalism from Texas Christian University and wrote for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for 12 years. Her life-long interest in nutrition and disease prevention never waned, and she went on to earn her Master's Degree in Nutrition from Eastern Michigan University. Cathy, now a Registered Dietitian, owns Lighthouse Nutrition and Wellness in Gig Harbor, WA where she enjoys inspiring people of all ages to make losing weight and living a healthy lifestyle easy, fun and permanent. She enjoys good food, cooking and food preparation, and showing others how healthy this can be. Her other pastimes include traveling, art, music and family life. She also likes staying fit with tennis, bicycling walking and jogging, researching nutrition and helping clients be at their best. For more information on Cathy, visit www.lighthouse-nutrition.com or write to Catherine at firstname.lastname@example.org.