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There's no doubt that desserts are popular with most kids.  When it comes to the lunch that kids take to school, pre-packaged desserts are certainly quick and easy — which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  And they are an easy trading favourite in the lunchroom or the schoolyard.

There are choices in pre-packaged desserts, and if you pay attention to the nutrition labels, you can find nutritious options. However, the list of ingredients may leave you scratching your head.

We're looking at a number of popular products that wind up in lunch bags across the country and examining what's in them. We're neither endorsing nor condemning these products. We're just explaining what the ingredients are and how they're dealt with by Canada's product labelling regulations.

 

What's in it: Jell-O Chocolate Fudge Pudding Snack

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Under their Jell-O label, Kraft Foods makes a line of puddings that are ready to eat, come in serving size containers and don't require refrigeration. Other companies sell similar products.

The Jell-O pudding snacks come in a variety of flavours. Let's look at the ingredients in Chocolate Fudge Attack.

About two-thirds of the pudding is moisture. Next is sugar, which accounts for about 17 per cent. Other carbohydrates make up about six per cent and fat and protein just one per cent.

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Skim Milk

Skim milk is made by removing the cream from milk. If it is concentrated or evaporated that means some or all of the water is removed. Before making the pudding, Kraft adds the water back in.

Skim milk is lower in fat and cholesterol than other types of milk.

Lynne Galia of Kraft Canada Corporate Affairs told CBC News that Kraft uses the reconstituted skim milk for reasons related to "production feasibility and food safety." She adds that it results in no nutritional differences.

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Sugar

One pudding cup contains 17 g of sugar, which includes both added and naturally occurring sugars.

Modified corn starch

Starches are usually modified when used in food processing. They have a number of different applications, including thickening instant desserts.

Modified starches are used in processed foods to improve their consistency and keep the solids suspended.  Modified corn starch does not add any nutritional value to the food.

Many methods are used to modify starch, depending on its intended use, but treating it with an acid is common.

Corn starch is generally not a good idea for infants under one year due to difficulties digesting it.

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Cocoa

The cocoa used is processed with alkali. This method of removing the bitter taste — the Dutch process — was invented by Dutch chocolate maker Coenraad Johannes van Houten in the nineteenth century. The process also increases solubility and enhances colour.

Antioxidants called flavanols are thought to be responsible for cardiovascular health benefits. "Cocoa powder is one of the richest sources of flavanol antioxidants," according to Ken Miller, the lead author of a 2008 study  published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Miller is a scientist at The Hershey Company.

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Although natural cocoas are high in flavanols, the study found that "when the cocoa is processed with alkali ... the flavanols are substantially reduced." The amount retained ranges from 40 per cent in lightly dutched cocoas to just 10 per cent if heavily dutched.

The Hershey scientists found that medium and lightly dutched cocoa powders were still "in the top 10 per cent of flavanol-containing foods when results were compared to foods listed in the USDA Procyanidin Database."

The Canadian Food and Drug regulations outline that a cocoa product is one made from cocoa beans, including cocoa nibs, cocoa liquor, cocoa mass, unsweetened chocolate, bitter chocolate, chocolate liquor, cocoa, low fat cocoa, cocoa powder and low fat cocoa powder.

 

Hydrogenated coconut and palm kernel oil

Hydrogenated oils give snacks a longer shelf life. They may be fully or partially hydrogenated. Partially hydrogenated oils contain high levels of trans fats.

Trans fatty acids "have absolutely no nutritional value," according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation.  Their consumption increases the risk of coronary heart disease by lowering the level of (HDL) good cholesterol while raising the level of (LDL) bad cholesterol.

The Nutrition Facts label states that the pudding snack contains 0 g. of trans fat, but according to Canadian regulations, if a product serving contains less than .2 g.  trans fat the label can say zero. With these small pudding snacks, if just under 20 per cent of the fat is trans fat that label could still read zero.

Trans fats were added to the food supply in the 1970s. Over the past 10 years, manufacturers have made significant reductions in their use of trans fats, but Manuel Arango of the Heart and Stroke Foundation told CBC News that with foods that appeal to children, "we are not making any progress whatsoever.  He wants government regulations to require further reductions of trans fat.

Coconut oil and palm kernel oils are both high in saturated fats. It is generally recommended that people, especially children, limit foods high in saturated fats. Saturated fats increase LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels.

Coconut oil is derived from the tree's fruit.

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Salt

We need some salt in our diet but too little or too much salt can lead to a variety of health problems. 

By weight salt is 40 per cent sodium and 60 per cent chloride. Each pudding snack contains 150 mg of sodium. Salt may be added to foods for both flavour and its preservative properties.

Sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate

This additive is common in processed desserts and many other foods.  According to GoodGuide it "raises no health concern." This white to slightly yellow powder is used as both an emulsifier and a stabilizer.

Maltodextrin

This is another additive found in many foods and artificial sweeteners. In North America it is usually made from corn starch but is also made from wheat, potato or rice starch.

According to Food Facts, maltodextrin is an easily digested carbohydrate that is "generally recognized as safe."

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The Nutrition Facts label for Jell-O Chocolate Fudge Attack pudding snack.

(In the comments on this story, Sue Newell of the Canadian Celiac Association writes that maltodextrin, "is such a refined starch-based product that there is no detectable gluten in the product, even if it is made from wheat starch.")

Colour

Health Canada in February 2010 said it intends to change regulations governing labelling for food colouring. Under the current regulations, food colourings must be listed in the ingredients list. Manufacturers have the option of listing the colours using their specific common name or under the umbrella label "colour."

According to Health Canada, susceptibility to adverse health effects varies from person to person and called for clear and specific labelling of food colours in place of a voluntary ban.

Artificial flavour

As a class, artificial flavours are chemically produced agents designed to mimic natural flavours. Eric Schlosser in his book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal notes that one artificial flavour can comprise more than 50 ingredients.

The Canadian Food and Drug Regulations outline that artificial flavours used in Canadian products can contain a sweetening agent, food colour and designated classes of preservatives. It can also contain, among other things, benzyl alcohol, ethyl acetate, isopropyl alcohol and edible vegetable oil.

The National's Lunch Box Breakdown  has more about food colourings and additives.


(We expanded the original version of this story with additional information requested or suggested by the comments.)