Updated: February 24, 2013 6:02AM
Consumption of snacks among children has increased markedly over the last 35 years.
In the late 1970s, American children consumed an average of only one snack a day. Today, they are consuming nearly three snacks per day. As a result, daily calories from children’s snacks have increased by almost 200 calories over the period.
Many of the snacks children consume are high-calorie, low-nutrient foods such as desserts and salty snacks. Trends in snacking, combined with larger portion sizes and more sedentary lifestyles, may be contributing to obesity among children.
Despite its likely role in childhood obesity, snacking may provide a mechanism for addressing this obesity problem and improving diet quality.
Replacing one energy-dense snack each day with a fruit or vegetable could reduce caloric intake and decrease the prevalence of overweight and obesity.
For example, a child replacing 1 ounce of potato chips (150 calories) with a cup of grapes (104 calories) or a medium-sized apple (95 calories) would consume 46-55 fewer snack calories. If done on a daily basis, this simple behavior could result in about half a pound less of body weight at the end of a month.
And, replacing desserts or salty snack foods with fruits and vegetables has the added bonus of reducing a child’s intake of added fats and sugars. But is this likely to increase food costs? The reality is that replacing a snack with a fruit or vegetable need not break a household’s food budget.
Are fruits and vegetables really more expensive?
Most Americans do not consume the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. Researchers at Ohio State University found that in the early 2000s, 74 percent of children ages 6-11 consumed less than the recommended amount of fruit and 84 percent consumed less than the recommended amount of vegetables. Tastes for sugary or salty foods, convenience, and the perception of fruits and vegetables as being expensive are among the reasons for this dietary disconnect.
The perception that fruits and vegetables — particularly in fresh form — are expensive is pervasive. In a 2012 survey for the Produce for Better Health Foundation, nearly two-thirds of mothers with children age 10 and younger cited cost as the most important factor when shopping for fruits and vegetables. The perceived high cost is of particular concern among lower income households.
A number of studies also claim that “healthy” foods like fruits and vegetables cost more than other foods. All such studies use price per calorie as the basis for comparison. However, researchers demonstrated that any conclusions about what types of foods are considered expensive depend on the unit in which prices are measured.
Fruits and vegetables appear to be more expensive than foods high in saturated fat, added sugars, and/or sodium when prices are measured by calories but not necessarily when prices are compared using other measures. For example, when using price per average amount consumed, the researchers found that fruits and vegetables are typically less expensive than less healthy foods.
For most, consuming the recommended quantity of fruits and vegetables will require increasing their consumption of and spending on fruits and vegetables.
However, the increase in spending is more a function of the shortfall between the amounts currently consumed and the amounts recommended by nutritionists than of the high cost of fruits and vegetables.
Furthermore, increased spending on fruits and vegetables need not be associated with increased food spending overall but could be offset by reduced spending on other foods.
Good candidates for reduced spending include high-calorie, low-nutrient foods like the salty/sweet snacks increasingly favored by children.