National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

You're serious? Baby carrots are better than wavy Lays and ranch dip?

The USDA just published a paper that, like most research efforts, confirms our previously held convictions.

Facebook makes you fat? That makes sense, too.

Of course, all research papers must create some element of suspense. The USDA published a report with the tease headline, Gobbling Up Snacks: Cause or Potential Cure for Childhood Obesity?

So which is it, cause or cure? In this case, the agency makes a case for swapping out snacks to reach the desired destination. From the report:

  • Children today are consuming close to 200 more calories a day from snacks than they did in the 1970s.
  • Replacing a calorie-dense snack food with a fruit or vegetable could reduce calorie intake and improve diet quality.
  • Swapping common snack foods with a ½-cup serving of fruits or vegetables can be done without compromising a household's food budget.

Here is a passage that talks about the economic value of switching. From the USDA:

Although some substitutions can increase food costs, others can reduce or have no impact on the food budget. Most substitutions, however, reduce snack calories. For example, replacing:

    a 1-ounce chocolate chip cookie with ¼ cup of dried raisins saves 14 calories and costs an additional 3 cents;
    4.1 ounces of ready-to-eat pudding with ½ cup of baby carrots saves 130 calories and 19 cents;
    1.1 ounces of potato chips with ½ cup of strawberries saves 142 calories and costs an additional 14 cents.

Making these 3 substitutions could reduce caloric intake by 286 calories with little change in cost (2 cents savings), as higher costs for some substitutions are offset by lower costs for others.

Another 397 substitutions are possible using each of the 20 fruits and vegetables to replace each of the 20 snack foods, with different calorie and cost tradeoffs. Making all 400 substitutions would result in an overall reduction of $7.00 in food costs--a small amount when spread over the 13 or so months needed to make all 400 substitutions at a rate of 1 substitution a day. The net impact on calories, however, is considerable, averaging 126 fewer calories per substitution. A month of swapping snacks once a day would save 3,780 calories, which, all else equal, would translate into approximately 1 less pound of body weight.

Substituting a fruit or vegetable for another type of snack food could increase fruit and vegetable consumption and help reduce childhood obesity. The Produce for Better Health Foundation reports that most mothers are aware that their families do not consume enough fruits and vegetables and are interested in new ways to incorporate these foods into their children's diets.


As the USDA rightly reminds us, fresh produce is a healthy snack option. We know this and consumers know this, but somehow the trigger isn't being pulled.  It seems there is a need for  bigger marketing bucks, a preposterous commitment to cultivate more healthy-minded snacking behavior by consumers.

It is great that the public health community has the back of the industry. But I feel produce marketers need to do more to validate the choice of fresh to consumers. This USDA ERS research paper tell us something all of us know is true - now the industry must go tell it on the mountain.

It will take more convincing - ideally funded with assessment dollars from a generic fresh produce promotion order - for snackers to put away the wavy Lays and open up the bag of baby carrots.