Walking through a grocery store and sorting through what's healthy and what's not has never felt more difficult. Food companies know that everyone is looking to eat smart, so many products are marketed to appear nutritious—even if they're not.
On the agenda today, Stretch Island Fruit Co. and their wildly popular fruit snacks. The company was acquired by Kashi in 2005, which itself is a subsidiary of Kellogg's. Stretch Island Fruit Leather is consistently one of the top-selling snacks on Amazon, and reviewers of the product praise it as a great choice for kids and adults alike. With packaging that screams 100% fruit ingredients and 0 grams of added sugar on their fruit leather and fruit strips, they certainly seem healthy. But are Stretch Island fruit snacks actually healthy?
For the sake of this article, we're going to focus on the company's Fruit Leather and Organic Fruit Strips. Although they also sell Organic Fruit Bites, I don't believe there's much debate on their healthiness. At 13 grams of added sugar per serving, five of which being the dreaded added-sugar variety, they may be healthier than a pack of Gushers, but not much else.
But with Stretch Island's Fruit Leather and Organic Fruit Strips, things aren't quite so clear. Let's start with the good. Most of the product contain just 4-6 ingredients, no artificial flavors or preservations, and no saturated fat. They also are made from 100% fruit ingredients and don't contain any added sugar. But that last part isn't quite as simple as it sounds.
Apple Puree Concentrate is the No.1 ingredient in every type of Stretch Island Fruit Leather and Organic Fruit Strip, and the additional ingredients are other forms of puree concentrate or juice concentrate.
The FDA does not automatically count fruit puree concentrates or fruit juice concentrates as added sugar (though there are limits to this exception), so Stretch Island is within its right to claim that its Fruit Leather and Organic Fruit Strips contain zero grams of added sugars.
Since fruit is naturally high in sugar, many food manufacturers utilize it in one way or another to add sweetness to their products. Whole fruit itself is plenty healthy in reasonable amounts largely due to its high fiber, antixoxidant and water content, but this isn't necessarily true for more processed forms of fruit. There's a lot of confusion around this idea. A 2012 study found that one-third of parents believed fruit juice was at least as healthy as fresh fruit, for example. It most certainly is not.
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Although fruit puree is generally more healthy than fruit juice, it usually removes the skin during processing, lowering its fiber content. Fruit puree concentrates, as is the primary ingredient in Stretch Island Fruit Leather and Organic Fruit Strips, not only goes through the pureeing process, but also a concentrating process which removes all or most of the water present in the puree. What results is a substance that contains significantly more sugar yet less fiber and other useful nutrients by volume.
To further fuzzy the issue, how our body digests food is actually a lot more complex than the simple math of nutrition facts. How long it takes to chew the food, the size of the portion, the form it's served in—all of these can significantly affect how our bodies handle and process the nutrients within. For example, a 2009 study found that eating a whole apple increased satiety more than applesauce or apple juice of equivalent weight and energy content—even when the juice had the correlating amount of fiber that'd been extracted during its creation added back into it afterwards. "These results suggest that solid fruit affects satiety more than pureed fruit or juice," the authors wrote.
So comparing whole fruit with a product like fruit leather isn't quite apples to apples (pardon the expression). This becomes more clear when we dive into the nutrition facts.
Each variety of Stretch Island Fruit Leather contains between 7-10 grams of sugar and 1 gram of fiber (though varieties like strawberry and raspberry contain slightly less than one gram). Each leather weighs 14 grams. Their Fruit Strips are of very similar size and have very similar nutrition facts.
These products are definitely healthier than most fruit-flavored candies or gummies available for purchase. There's no doubt about that. But they also are no substitute for whole fruit. They may help satisfy a sweet craving, but they lack the amount of fiber and/or protein needed to fill you up, and they don't deliver the same amounts of vitamins and antioxidants whole fruit does.
A cup of actual strawberries, for example, contains about the same number of calories as one Stretch Island strawberry Fruit Leather. Yet it contains roughly three times the amount of fiber, 2 fewer grams of sugar, and more than twice as much potassium.
Stretch Island Fruit Leather and Organic Fruit Strips are certainly healthier than most junk food, but they can't hold a candle to real, whole fruit. Consuming them in a pattern that reflects this reality is going to set you up for dietary success, while forgoing whole fruit to eat two or three of these snacks a day in its place is unwise.
Photo Credit: Stretch Island Fruit Co.
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