THIS fall, kids at school may be munching on low-carb bread spread with low-carb peanut butter, spooning up low-carb applesauce, and washing it all down with low-carb fruit punch.
With U.S. sales of low-carb foods approaching $815 million last year - and some 59 million U.S. adults currently controlling their carb intake - it was only a matter of time before the low-carb, low-sugar craze trickled down to the kiddie set.
Can products like low-sugar Frosted Flakes help combat the childhood obesity scourge? Not necessarily, warns Dr. George L. Blackburn, associate director of nutrition at Harvard Medical School.
"There's absolutely no evidence that low-carb diets and foods help kids lose weight," he says.
Some low-carb foods have artificial sweeteners or added fat to replace the sugar that's been removed. No one knows for sure what, if any, of their long-term health consequences are, but most dietitians recommend consuming them in limited quantities.
And some nutrition experts warn against kids going on low-carb regimens altogether. "Carbohydrates are good for kids. It's their fuel to learn, grow and play," contends dietitian Patricia Vasconcellos, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
"They absolutely need the carbs found in whole grains."
Here's how she rates some of the more popular reduced-sugar and reduced-carb foods:
Kellogg's Reduced-Sugar Frosted Flakes & Froot Loops
With one-third less sugar and carbs, these new and improved kid breakfast classics are better choices than the originals, says Vasconcellos, and they taste almost exactly the same. The problem? "These cereals aren't healthy choices to begin with," she says. "They had so much sugar to begin with, that even the low-sugar versions still have too much."
In general, she suggests, look for cereals with more fiber (both the low-sugar Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops only have 1 gram each). Otherwise, you're feeding your child empty calories. Speaking of calories, both cereals have the same number per serving as their originals.
(These aren't the only two kiddie cereals to get a makeover. General Mills also just came out with low-sugar versions of Trix, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Cocoa Puffs.)
Tropicana Light Fruit Punch
With half the calories and sugar of regular fruit punch, this is still just sugar water, now with added artificial sweetener (Splenda, again). Kids should only be drinking 100 percent fruit juice, says Vasconcellos. If it's called a fruit "punch," "drink" or "cocktail," don't buy it. It will fill them up so that they won't be as hungry for real food at mealtimes. Plus, the sickeningly sweet flavor will make other drinks and foods taste like cardboard to them.
Musselman's Lite Apple Sauce
Why mess with something that was already healthy, Vasconcellos wonders. Instead of buying this "lite" version, stick with regular applesauce or one that has no added sugar. The Splenda added to these apples makes them way sweeter than would ever be found naturally, and there's no need to introduce your child to such unnatural flavors. Plus, apples are not a low-carb food, so this sauce still has 13 grams of carbohydrates.
Simply Jif Creamy Peanut Butter
The label on this peanut butter advertises that it only has "4 Net Carbs!" That's only a one-carb difference from regular peanut butter, though; not enough to make any kind of difference in a total diet.
Hood Carb Countdown Chocolate Dairy Beverage
Note that this product does not call itself milk, but rather a "dairy beverage." That's a warning sign right there says Vasconcellos. Manufacturers remove sugar from their products in order to label them "low-carb" and replace it with artificial sweetener - in this case, Splenda.
Besides not wanting to fill your little one up on chemicals, super-sweet artificial sweeteners change children's palates. Once used to the sweeter flavors, they're less likely to want to eat healthier, more nutritious foods.
And low-carb doesn't mean low-fat; this drink has 4.5 grams of fat (2.5 of which are saturated) in one cup. "There's nothing wrong with regular milk for kids," says Vasconcellos.
Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.