The Case Against Baby Carrots and Juice Boxes

babycarrotsUp until this point my son has lived a very sheltered life — he’s spent most of his time at home, with me, having only attended a part-time preschool program. Last week, that changed. Felix started full-time kindergarten in public school, and already he’s encountering things that he’s never seen before. Like baby carrots, for example.

Of all the new people and things he encountered on his first day of school, he came home babbling with excitement about — you guessed it! — baby carrots.

“I loved those little carrots better than the carrots that come out of the ground,” he told me. “I want us to get some.”

“They’re the same thing as the carrots that come out of the ground,” I said, “but a machine has peeled and sliced them into that cute little shape.”

“Yeah, that makes them better. Can we get some?”

“No. Those carrots cost more money. I’d rather buy a regular carrot and I can peel and slice it into sticks for you.”

“Oh, fine.”

I know I might come across as a buzzkill here, but I think baby carrots are pretty silly, unless maybe you’re on a car trip and they’re being sold at a highway rest area. Otherwise, why not buy a regular ole’ carrot and do the work yourself? Not only is this cheaper, but less of the carrot is wasted.

There are health benefits as well, for both the body and mind. A straight-out-of-the-earth carrot reminds you that the vegetable has been grown in the ground on a farm – there might even be dirt on the skin – and the more we remain aware of the effort and resources that farmers put into growing the food that we eat, the better we value the food, and the healthier the food is for our bodies. Yes, it requires more effort on our part to prepare the carrot for eating, but I’d rather do that myself than trust a huge food corporation to do that for me. Baby carrots are washed in chlorine, while the carrot you peel and eat at home is not. Who needs more chlorine (which we’re already absorbing from tap water) in their system? The name “baby carrots” seems apt, not just because they look like baby versions of carrots, but because they infantilize the consumer, who has only to open the bag and start munching without a care in the world.

Besides baby carrots, juice boxes look to be a day-to-day part of my son’s kindergarten routine. Like baby carrots, he’s had a juice box or two in his life, but only at friends’ birthday parties. At home he has a small amount of milk with breakfast and dinner, and otherwise drinks only water. Aside from coffee and alcoholic beverages, I just drink water as well. It’s the best beverage for hydrating your body. So what’s with the juice boxes?

According to PBS Kids, juice boxes are built from six layers of paper, polyethylene plastic, and a thin layer of aluminum. They also, of course, come with plastic straws. The plastic in these packages will likely take at least 300 years to break down, though that’s a conservative estimate.

The contents of the boxes don’t get much better, as many juice brands are loaded with sugar. As Everyday Health reports, sugary drinks lead to an increased risk of obesity and diabetes, and establish taste preferences for sweet beverages in young children that may get out of hand when they enter their teenage years. (On top of this, Dr. Oz caused a stir in 2011 when he found certain apple juices contained high levels of arsenic.) Kids who drink a lot of juice are avoiding healthier fluids like milk and water.

From a budget standpoint, the decision to use pre-packaged foods probably appears to make sense for a huge school system like the New York City Department of Education. Purchasing pre-washed and peeled carrots is surely cheaper than hiring people to wash and peel the vegetables by hand. And because not every classroom has a sink or abuts a bathroom, it’s easier for teachers to handle snack time by distributing juice boxes. Surely politics plays a part as well — big companies make these products and benefit from school food contracts.

I’d rather see the school system funnel that money to in-state farmers, and to purchase a BPA-free water bottle for all students. That’s an investment in our children’s health and well-being that will pay off in the future in healthier eating and drinking habits. Does it require more effort? Of course. But so does learning how to read or cleaning our rooms. There’s nothing wrong with doing work. And yes, it may end up costing more up-front, but that’s money well-spent. We shouldn’t make important decisions like what our kids are putting into their bodies based on cutthroat economics. That’s inhumane.

Parents need to set the model for this at home too. Don’t buy baby carrots or juice boxes, or packaged items like pre-washed lettuce. There’s nothing wrong with dirty produce — just wash it off. Even a bug or worm or two isn’t a problem. If anything, that’s a sign the food is healthy and hasn’t been sprayed heavily with pesticides. And if you choose to drink juice, buy 100% juice and pour it into a glass.

Real food is good food! It’s what our kids should be eating at home and school.

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