Snack Attack

The anti-fun-food Center for Science in the Public Interest (search) struck again this week with its list of   “Better Snacks and Worst Snacks” for school vending machines. But labeling foods as “good” or “bad” is a dubious undertaking.

CSPI proclaimed snacks like Chips Ahoy!, Oreos, HOHOs, chocolate milk, fruit drinks, candy bars and sugary candies as the “worst snacks,” and proclaimed unsweetened applesauce, bottled water, granola bars, unsweetened dry cereal, orange juice (100 percent), low-fat or fat-free milk and raisins as the “better snacks.”

CSPI’s tries to justify its snack attack by claiming that “Rates of obesity have doubled in children… over the last two decades. That is already fueling a rise in type 2 diabetes, and 60 percent of overweight five-to-10-year-olds already have high cholesterol or some other risk factor for heart disease.”

Even assuming for the sake of argument that these claims are valid (more on them later), they’re still not a sufficient grounds for condemning Oreos, chocolate milk and the other allegedly “worst snacks.” Perhaps these foods should not be the only option in school vending machines where students should also be provided with more nutritional choices and encouraged to develop healthy eating habits. But in general, any food--even the sweetest, saltiest, and fattiest -- can be part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.

For the average healthy person consuming a nutritionally balanced diet with a calorie content appropriate for their metabolism and level of physical activity, a moderate intake of fun foods won’t lead to health problems.

The appropriateness of eating fun foods -- and, for that matter, all other foods -- is really a matter of quantity. Too much of any particular food is a balanced diet no-no.

Further, over-consumption of unsweetened orange juice (about 12 calories per ounce) -- one of CSPI’s supposed “best snacks” -- can be as much of a  caloric problem as over-consumption of Coke (about 14 calories per ounce), one of CSPI’s supposed “worst snacks.”

Certainly orange juice has vitamins and minerals that soda does not, but in a balanced diet, any excess vitamins and minerals in any extra servings of orange juice consumed may just be excreted without providing any nutritional benefit.

Despite the “junk food” moniker, there is absolutely no scientific evidence that implicates moderate intake of fun foods as a personal or public health problem when consumed as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.

The health claims that are the back drop for CSPI’s labeling (libeling?) of food have their own “junk” quality.

First, the claim of an “epidemic” of overweight kids (search) is not well-supported. Like it or not, that claim cannot be verified simply by casually noting overweight kids at your local shopping mall.

There may or may not be more overweight kids today than 20 years ago. No one knows for sure.

None of the data are very reliable. They’ve been collected by telephone, not in person. Surveyors call random households and ask the heights and weights of children in the household. These “data” are then used to calculate a dubious indicator called “body mass index” (search)-- a ratio of weight to height. Too high a body mass index and a child is assumed to be overweight.

Even assuming that the correct height and weight figures are offered up by whoever answers the phone -- none of the data are verified for accuracy -- body mass index is a lousy indicator of weight problems among healthy children.

The heights and weights of growing children are constantly changing. Today’s short, chubby kid may be tomorrow’s tall, lean kid, for example. “Husky” kids aren’t necessarily overweight. Moreover, today’s overweight kid doesn’t necessarily become tomorrow’s overweight adult.

A recent study in the British Medical Journal studied a group of children from birth in 1947 to age 50. The researchers reported, "Little tracking from childhood overweight to adulthood obesity was found … No excess adult health risk from childhood or teenage overweight was found. Being thin in childhood offered no protection against adult fatness, and the thinnest children tended to have the highest adult risk at every level of adult obesity."

CSPI also distorts the health consequences of kids being overweight. The activists claim that obesity “is fueling a rise” in Type 2 diabetes (search). To the extent some increase in adolescent diabetes may have occurred in recent years, the increase has been reported among African-American, Hispanic and Native-American kids -- not all kids.

Far from a general increase, the phenomenon seems to have ethnic and socio-economic roots that need to be further researched. But it certainly isn’t linked with consumption of any particular foods.

As to efforts trying to link childhood diet with heart disease (search) risk in adults, suffice it to say that heart disease is a very complex phenomenon, which causes are multiple, perhaps interactive and not well understood.

No one’s Oreo, chocolate milk, or Coke indulgences have been pinpointed as causing any heart disease.

The bottom line is that fun foods aren’t “bad” -- but CSPI’s shrill and unfounded activism sure is.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

Steven Milloy is the publisher of, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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