The Problem with Girl Scout Cookies

In one memorable scene from the movie The Addams Family, young Wednesday Addams asks the uniformed adolescent who rings the bell at her front door if the cookies she is selling are made with real Girl Scouts. Well, Wednesday, I would say that yes, in a way they are.

I was a Girl Scout, and I went to Girl Scout camp for many years. I wore a sash that was covered with badges. I even sold Girl Scout cookies in my neighborhood. But I am no longer 12 years old.

Girl Scout cookies got their start in 1922 when a few ambitious young women and their moms made sugar cookies for a bake sale. The recipe (see below) looked exactly as you would expect. At the first officially organized sale, the Scouts sold homemade cookies at the windows of local Philadelphia utility companies. By 1936, however, 125 troops were working with commercial bakers who had been licensed for the purpose. Girl Scouts sold other things besides cookies. During World War II, for instance, a shortage of flour, sugar, and butter led Girl Scouts to sell newspapers. In 1943 they sold War Bonds (not for profit).   

Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Girl Scouts experimented with many different recipes. Just like McDonalds. 

In 1978 the National Council standardized packaging and pricing systems, and reduced the number of licensed bakeries. By the 1980s, the Girl Scouts’ control over a sizable segment of the cookie market led to an agreement with Keebler, owned by Kellogg’s, along with two other licensed bakeries. Cookie sale awards were instituted in 1998. The cost of the awards, of course, is factored into the funds that are returned to each troop.

But my big beef with Girl Scout cookies is not the business arrangement. It’s the ingredient list. Most brands contain at least three types of sugar, including sugar, invert sugar, and dextrose. Yes, I know they’re cookies. But let’s call sugar sugar, and remember that home-baked cookies don’t contain invert sugar, dextrose, or corn syrup solids. 

Why do all mentions of “enriched flour” include a detailed list of all the B vitamins added back after the flour was stripped? Well, it has the effect of pushing back the first mention of the word “sugar” much farther in the ingredient list, to make it appear as if it is not a major ingredient. Even though it is.

At least one type of cookie contains caramel coloring. A study published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, demonstrated a positive association between caramel coloring and risk of high blood pressure. If we stop buying it, maybe they will stop making it.

On their official website, the Girl Scouts of America organization justifies the widespread enlistment of children to serve as representatives for commercial baked goods manufacturers by emphasizing that selling builds people skills and confidence, decision making, creative thinking, fair business practice, and, yes, money management. Many other activities also accomplish the development of these skills.

What else are we teaching? 

#1 That it’s okay to sell (and eat) large, even absurdly large, amounts of white flour and sugar. 

#2 That you don’t have to learn to make things yourself. 

#3 That it’s okay to let somebody else make large amounts of treats for you to distribute. 

#4 That it’s okay not to know your own way around a kitchen.  

#5 That it’s okay for parents to take signup sheets to work to increase your total sales, otherwise known as letting someone else do the work. 

#6 That it’s okay to do things that you may not personally believe in for financial gain. 

In our country, where fully a third of current fifteen-year-olds are expected to become diabetic, a conversation is brewing about whether the Girl Scouts should represent the commercial baking industry. 

Who is going to pay for all the medical care that those diabetics are going to need? It is unlikely to be the processed food industry. How high a price are we willing to pay?

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Girl Scout Cookie Ingredient List, circa 1922

1 cup butter

1 cup sugar, with additional sugar for topping (optional)

2 eggs

2 tbsp milk

1 tsp. vanilla

2 cups flour

1 tsp. salt

2 tsp. baking powder



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