Are Girl Scout Cookies Bad for You?

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While recently researching trans fats – see Trans Fat: When Cheap Means Costly – I stumbled across the Girl Scouts‘ take on what Harvard calls “the worst fat.” It made me angry. Take a look…

Girl Scouts of the USA is proud that all Girl Scout cookies are “zero trans fat per serving” with the same great taste that has made them one of America’s favorite treats over the years. All varieties contain less than 0.5 grams trans fat per serving, which meets or exceeds the FDA guidelines for the “zero trans fat” designation, and selected varieties can claim 100% trans-fat free status, meaning there’s not a speck of trans fats in the whole box.

Those quotation marks are key: If they weren’t there, I’d be accusing the Girl Scouts of lying instead of fudging. While their trans fat-free claims are technically true, they’re also misleading – and the average consumer has a hard enough time understanding trans fats as it is.

GirlScoutCookies.org

Yes, it’s true that if a food contains more than zero but less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, the federal government allows the manufacturer to print a “0g” next to “Trans Fat” on the Nutrition Facts label. But that doesn’t mean all Girl Scout cookies meet the FDA guidelines for a safe amount of trans fat per serving.

On FDA-mandated Nutrition Facts labels, the “% Daily Value” spot next to “Trans Fat” is always blank. That’s because the FDA isn’t comfortable recommending that you include a specific amount of man-made trans fats, also called partially hydrogenated oils, in your daily diet. They just advise keeping your intake of trans fat “as low as possible.”

Many experts believe that no amount of man-made trans fats is safe to eat…

  • Dr. Oz: “0 trans fats each day.”
  • American Diabetes Association: “Eat as little trans fat as possible by avoiding all foods that contain it.”
  • American Heart Association: “[Limit] the amount of trans fats you eat to less than 1 percent of your total daily calories… Given the amount of naturally occurring trans fats [found in certain meat and milk products] you probably eat every day, this leaves virtually no room at all for industrially manufactured trans fats.”

But what the national Girl Scouts organization omitted from its cookie bragging rights is that three Girl Scout cookies definitely contain trans fat (yes, including Thin Mints) and another six probably contain trans fat – in other words, the ingredients list is worded too evasively to tell for sure.

What’s in a cookie?

All these fat facts made me wonder what else may be lurking in Girl Scout cookies.

The good news is that the trans fats are the worst of it. (Not that an unhealthier ingredient necessarily even exists!)

I broke down and color coded the cookie Nutrition Facts labels based on six factors per serving: calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and sugars. Red is the worst in the category, green is the best. Depending on your health situation and diet, certain factors may be more important to you than others.

This analysis isn’t precise since Girl Scout cookie serving sizes vary slightly in weight, but as a side-by-side comparison of the cookies, it gives you a better idea than the Girl Scouts website will.

Who would’ve guessed that, relative to the other cookies, the Do-si-dos peanut-butter-sandwich cookies are the healthiest? Or that the Thin Mints made by ABC Bakers (one of the two official Girl Scout bakers) have the most calories, saturated fat, and sodium, and the second-highest amount of fat and sugar? Not that the Thin Mints by Little Brownie Bakers are any better.

To buy or not to buy

I agree with the Girl Scouts on two key cookie points…

  • They’re a special treat: “Girl Scout cookies are sold for a short time every year, and are considered a snack treat.”
  • They support a good cause: “Approximately 70% of the proceeds stays in the local Girl Scout council to provide a portion of the resources needed to support Girl Scouting in that area.”

Now, I can’t advise you to buy the cookies with trans fat, because I wouldn’t buy them myself: Trans fats aren’t worth their long-term cost. But you can bet I’ll be buying a carefully selected box or two when they show up in my neighborhood.

So just remember to choose wisely – and that a serving is a couple of cookies, not the whole box.

Oh, if you’re wondering when Girl Scout cookies will show up in your neighborhood, enter your ZIP code in the gray box at GirlScoutCookies.org. And if you’re wondering what’s so bad about trans fat, read Trans Fat: When Cheap Means Costly before you buy those cookies.

Karla Bowsher was raised by a stringent cardiologist and worked as a medical office administrator for 10 years before going into journalism. She was also a Girl Scout for nine years. She now runs our Deals page and covers consumer and retail issues. If you have a comment, suggestion, or question, leave a comment or contact her at karla@moneytalksnews.com.

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