Yes, it's sweet. And yes, it makes for a good snack. But still....

"Why are we here?" Rob Adams, who's manning the booth, evidently is equipped with telepathic powers. Or maybe he has just heard the question several thousand times today. "The banana is a perfect snack! It even comes in its own biodegradable packaging. We are an oasis."

"We're taking a stand," adds his colleague, Jill Greer. "It's nice to have a healthy option if you're diabetic."

Scripture Candy's founders consider it a blessed company. Customers agree.
William Rice
Scripture Candy's founders consider it a blessed company. Customers agree.

"There's sugar-free candy," Adams posits.

"It tastes terrible," Greer retorts. "Haven't you ever stolen your grandma's candy?"

Bananas are in high demand at convenience stores, thanks to Chiquita Brands International's delayed-ripening technology, which allows the company to keep the fruit from producing ethylene, the hormone that causes it to ripen. But who wants to be the only one at the birthday party peeling a banana while all the other kids tuck into chocolate cake?

Builds Strong Bodies Twelve Ways

Chiquita, it turns out, has brought the one and only honest-to-God fruit at the Sweets & Snacks Expo. But there are plenty of fruit-like products. The manufacturers of Thinkfruit take pride in the fact that their chewy fruit snacks were once real apples and peaches and berries that hung on real trees and bushes before they were sliced up, dried out and packed into pouches. "We use whole berries and lots of sugar — natural sugar," boasts Thinkfruit spokesman Tracy Schulis.

Not all that many years ago, openly advertising that you used sugar would have likely found you searching for a new career. Food historian Andrew Smith notes that as the campaign against tooth decay gained traction in the 1960s, the food industry responded by introducing high-fructose corn syrup. It didn't taste much different from sugar, but it kept food from getting stale or growing mold; after a year on the shelf, your candy would taste the same as it did when you stowed it there. Because it was made from corn, it wasn't subject to the government tariffs on sugar, so it cost less. And perhaps best of all, it wasn't called sugar. What a coup!

In all the excitement, everybody forgot that the "fructose" portion of "high-fructose" is, you guessed it, a sugar, and, as such, caused cavities. More recently, scientists have learned that the body (be it experimental rat or human) is unable to process high-fructose corn syrup as thoroughly as it processes sugar, because high-fructose corn syrup contains extra molecules the body has no use for. And those get converted into fat, specifically abdominal fat, which contributes to heart disease and diabetes.

This discovery happened to coincide with reports of a nationwide obesity epidemic. All of a sudden plain old cane sugar doesn't seem quite so bad — though the fact that some food manufacturers are bragging about it baffles even their target audience, the folks at Whole Foods Market Inc. "It's really weird," says Nicole Carpenter, a marketing and communications specialist at the Austin, Texas-based grocery chain.

Adds Carpenter, candidly but prudently: "You'll still gain weight if you eat our candy."

Still, Thinkfruit and its freeze-dried kin can tout one significant advantage over the natural substances from which they were derived: They'll be able to sit on a supermarket shelf for a year, maybe more.

On Day Two of the expo, Joy Bauer, nutritional guru-in-residence at the Today show, delivers a keynote lecture on healthy eating. Eat more whole grains, she exhorts her audience, and eschew whole-milk products in favor of low-fat dairy. If 90 percent of what you eat is good for you, reasons Bauer, you can use the remaining 10 percent for indulgences.

Unfortunately, Bauer reports, the average American eats 2.23 snacks a day, or 24 percent of his or her caloric intake. That means Joe Shmoe needs to reduce his daily snacking by more than half. Which poses a problem for the vendors who want — no, need — people to snack more. (True, people could buy snacks and not eat them, but that's the sort of exercise in folly the Einsteins among us euphemistically refer to as a "thought experiment.")

Oddly, Bauer had been much more severe on TV only two days prior, when she lambasted snack manufacturers during a Today segment, pointing out how they print exaggerated health claims on their packaging. It so happens that one of the companies Bauer singled out for castigation, Welch's (and, specifically, Welch's Fruit Snacks), has ponied up for a booth at the expo. Following her speech, Bauer seeks out the Welch's reps and apologizes for humiliating them in front of a national audience.

"She said the [show's] producers had brought the product and told her to talk about it," recounts Jody King, a marketer for Welch's. King says she accepted the apology, reasoning, "She said four strawberries are better than our product, and that's true." (Bauer also noted how Welch's makes a big deal about how a single packet of Fruit Snacks contains an entire day's supply of Vitamin C, which doesn't even begin to make up for the fact that the product also contains artificial colors and flavors, not to mention corn syrup — albeit not of the high-fructose variety.)

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