“Your products are garbage.” “You’re calling your ‘cheese’ a health food now? And it’s targeted towards children?!” “How do you deal with the shame of what you do?” “It is unbelievable that nutritionists and dieticians still push this toxic crap on trusting, ignorant families, and pass it off as ‘food.’” These are just a few of the awkwardly snarky comments peppered between upbeat, cheery recipes, news, and otherwise congenial PR-speak on the Kraft Foods Facebook page. The juxtaposition reminds me of that scene when all those beauty queens get covered in dog food in the movie Never Been Kissed.
People (including many nutritionists and dieticians) have been rubbed the wrong way about Kraft’s Singles apparent recent induction into the end-all-be-all of the health world after receiving the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) seal of approval, the logo from their Kids Eat Right initiative (we wrote a great article about it here). Kids Eat Right is a campaign that promotes nutrition education for kids and families through healthy eating and obesity prevention. The AND claims that while the slices of processed cheese product are not exactly a “health food,” Kraft is a big (read: financially beneficial) supporter of the campaign. To thank them, the AND allows Kraft to tout the campaign’s logo. An uproar followed as nutritionists, dieticians, and consumers criticized both brands.
Ingredients-wise, no, of course “processed cheese product” is not a health food. While I, a nutritionist myself, agree that almost all foods can fit into a healthy diet, these slices (which, remember, must be termed “cheese product” due to the lack of actual cheese in them) are not healthy, per se. Cupcakes, soda, french fries: all can, at one point or another, find their way into a healthy diet every now and then, but they are also by no means “healthy.”
This is not a case of kids eating right because they’re eating Kraft singles, but rather kids eating right in spite of eating Kraft singles. Nearly everyone, everyone, who sees a label on a food item that says “Kids Eating Right” is going to assume, understandably and rightly so, that a child eating that particular food item is “eating right” and that that food item must be “healthy.” And what do you do when you’re trying to make sure your kids are eating healthy foods? Well, you buy healthy foods. And you prepare their breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with healthy foods, and if a label in the grocery store is going to scream “healthy” to you, well by golly, it’s going to be a label that takes the work out of trying to figure out what’s healthy for your kids. It’s the label that says it all: “Kids Eat Right,” condoned by professional healthy eaters everywhere (that’s what the AND is made up of, right?)
But nutritionally, Kraft singles are no more “healthy” than other processed foods (or cheese products) for that matter. So, why did the AND decide to slap their label on the blue cellophane packaging? Money, obviously. In an age-old scheme to collect profit from endorsements, Kraft gave an “undisclosed” amount of money so that AND would allow their Kids Eat Right label on Kraft’s packaging. Oh, it’s only because Kraft is a big supporter, claimed the AND. Well, that’s baloney. No, it’s because Kraft wrote a number on an Easy Cheese-covered napkin, slid it down the table to the AND, and the AND head honchos went all money crazy.
The numbers on the back of a Kraft singles package don’t seem like a big deal upon first look. Per slice, each Original slice contains 60 calories, four grams of total fat, 2.5 g of which is saturated fat, and 200 milligrams of sodium. Don’t think I forgot about the one gram of sugar per slice. I didn’t, but milk contains natural sugars, so it’s understandable that there’d be a bit in this “cheese product.” For the 2% slices, the numbers slightly differ. Each slice contains 45 calories, 2.5 grams of total fat with 1.5 grams being saturated. Sodium clocks in at 230 milligrams per slice, and there are 2 grams of sugar per instead of just one.
A quick nutrition lesson for you, though: Notice the percentages that are listed next to the amounts of almost all of the nutrients on a Nutrition Facts label. These percentages, while often dismissed by consumers (because no one ever really bothers to explain what they’re actually for), are helpful in planning a healthy diet. These percentages are meant to work in conjunction with the serving size of a product to say that if someone eats a serving size of Food X, then that person will be fulfilling x% of this particular nutrient for the day. Sometimes, those percentages are difficult to make them reach 100% (like in the case for many vitamins and minerals). Other times, it’s way too easy to hit 100%, like when it comes to sodium levels. For instance, most healthy adults who consume a diet of 2000 calories per day should not eat more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day (sodium is measured in milligrams on the Nutritional Facts label). Nutrition Facts labels are actually based on these adults: those who are consuming 2,000 calories per day. So, when you see that a food item has 230 milligrams of sodium per serving, you’ll also see that the percentage that appears right next to it, 10% corresponds with how much sodium you will be consuming based on your allotted “limit.” So, if you eat one food that says 10%, another with 5%, another with 25%, and so on, you can easily add up throughout the day how fast you’re reaching that 100% (or, the 2,300 milligram-limit).
But again, these percentages are for an adult’s diet. Specifically, an adult who consumes 2,000 calories per day. Children have different calorie needs and, subsequently, different limits to the amount of sodium, saturated fat, and other nutrients they should be eating. These charts from the American Heart Association nicely point out the different calorie needs of different age groups. One can see that children 2 years old and older need a range of 1000-over 2000 calories, and that the amount of fat they consume should hover around 25–35% of those total calories, and if it’s saturated fat? That should make up no more than 10% of calories. So this means that a 4-year-old girl consuming 1200 calories a day should be getting no more than 300–420 calories from fat (about 33–46 grams of fat per day), only 120 calories (or 13 grams) of which should be saturated fat. One slice of Kraft singles contains 4 grams of fat, or 12% of the total fat that that child should be consuming that day. With all of the other fat-containing foods that children could be eating instead (milk, yogurt, oils, good-fat-containing avocados, real cheese), is there really any room for a processed cheese product to sneak its way into that rather small, limited amount of daily allowable fat? And, if so, shouldn’t the priority be given to better-for-you fats like the ones listed above, in addition to nuts, lean meat, and beans?
“But Kraft singles provide a lot of calcium. Don’t kids need calcium?” Yes, Kraft singles contain calcium, the one and only potentially redeeming quality of the wrapped slices. But real milk has calcium. Real cheese has calcium. Spinach, kale, and other leafy greens have calcium. I know, I know, my saying that your 4-year old is going to eat anything that’s leafy or that’s green is like urging a well… kid to eat vegetables. But for pete’s sake, kids’ gummy vitamins contain calcium! And kids sure like those. There are better ways to make sure your kids get enough calcium without sacrificing the future health of their little hearts by using processed cheese product as the vehicle for that calcium. Or the vehicle for any nutrient. There are far better and healthier ways to get kids to eat right than by using fake cheese. The public health and nutrition implications of doing so are worth it.