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Jessica Wiant: An expert weighs in on snacks

Having your own kids opens your eyes to an entire world you never noticed before.

After years and years of not seeing where the highchairs are in restaurants, or if there is a changing table in the restroom, these things suddenly have an important place in your life.

After having my son I realized really quickly that there are pregnant bellies and tiny toddlers -- which I never paid any mind to before -- everywhere.

As my son got a little older and his palate expanded to finger foods, one thing I started paying more attention to while out and about was the snacking habits of other tots.

One thing stood out: From friends' highchair photos to conversations with other parents, a single snack in a cylindrical container seemed to dominate.

Look around and you'll see them, scattered around the floor underneath any table where a wee one has recently had a meal.

They are popularly referred to as "puffs," and there are several variations. Gerber Graduates makes several flavors, and store brands at Wal-Mart, Martin's, Food Lion and Target do, too. An organic version is on the shelves at several stores.

From blueberry to sweet potato to banana and peach mango, puffs claim to dissolve easier in little mouths than a crunchier grown-up cereal so they are safer for babies learning to self-feed.

I saw them all over the place and babies seemed to gobble them up.

I held off, worried that puffs would start my son on the road to junk food earlier than I wanted. I stuck with mostly home-pureed veggies and fruits and offered him little pieces of avocado and banana.

Those foods proved too slippery for his little fingers.

Eventually I started browsing puffs labels, and I began to realize that while they might not offer the most nutrition, they aren't exactly loaded with sugar either. I guess they're called puffs for a reason: They seem primarily to consist of air.

I gave in and let him have some, and he scooped them up eagerly by the fistful.

When he got a little better at eating, I started hearing that Cheerios were a better choice, so I started label reading again.

I checked out the Cheerios website and found they clearly market their products to kids, even offering the original version in a container strikingly similar to the ones for puffs. I also found the nutrition information to be comparable to puffs. Switch to multigrain or another flavor, though, and the sugar content goes up considerably.

Still not clear on which would win the battle for better baby snack, I consulted an expert.

Melinda Johnson, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, specializes in child nutrition.

She looked into the issue and declared Cheerios the winner. The ingredients list for Cheerios starts with whole grain oats as opposed to rice flour in puffs, she pointed out. Cheerios also have a little fiber and protein, and puffs have none, she wrote in an e-mail.

Puffs aren't all bad though. They aren't much higher in sugar, she said.

She also offered some common sense advice: "It really isn't necessary to count grams of added sugar, especially if you are simply focusing on feeding your child fresh, whole foods rather than processed foods or snack-type foods."

I'm sure those are words we all could stand to live by.

Contact Jessica Wiant at jwiant@nvdaily.com


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