Wednesday, October 08, 2014

School meals face rules on fat, meat, veggies -- but no limits on sugar

[Note: This article was published a year ago.]

Eleanor Yang Su
October 3, 2013

Almost everything about a school cafeteria meal has a regulation. The federal government caps the amount of fat and salt in breakfasts and lunches. It sets minimum standards for servings of fruit, vegetables, grains, milk and meat.

But one widely used and often-overused product has no official limits: sugar.

As Congress faces increased scrutiny over subsidies to the sugar industry, nutritionists and anti-obesity crusaders are focusing on the amount of sugar in school meals – and asking whether regulations governing school lunches deliberately exclude limits on sugar to favor a powerful industry.

“Certainly, the food industry has pushed back against having a sugar standard,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been pushing for a limit on added sugars for years. “If the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) is going to address other key parts of the dietary guidelines – fats, salts and calories – why choose to leave one dietary guideline out?”

Recent research shows that sugar levels in school meals are more than double what is recommended for the general public. Elementary school lunch menus contain 115 percent of the recommended daily calories from added sugars and fats, according to a November study by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. Middle school and high school lunch menus also are sugar- and fat-heavy, averaging between 59 and 74 percent of the recommended amounts.

About 1 in 5 school lunch menus includes dessert, the federal study said. The most common are cookies, cakes and brownies, some of which are counted as grain requirements. Other popular options are fruit with gelatin, ice cream and pudding.

The data from the School Nutrition Dietary Assessment is based on a 2010 survey of about 900 schools across the country and is considered the most comprehensive federal research on school meals.

For years, schools added sweets, such as graham crackers or cookies, to bump up calorie counts and meet minimum thresholds. Researchers say that practice is less common now that the USDA has implemented calorie limits. But some say sugary treats still are appealing to school administrators.
“Sugar-related products are the least expensive source of calories in the school meal program,” said Matthew Sharp, senior advocate for California Food Policy Advocates. He said many school officials oppose reducing sugar in meals because it would force them to buy more expensive products.

The report did not break out sugars specifically. It also didn’t count sugars that occur naturally in fruit and milk, but rather sweeteners added to processed or prepared foods...

...“Sugar is the only nutrient with no dietary reference intake, and it’s because the food industry doesn’t want it,” said Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at UC San Francisco. “They know when they add sugar to food, you buy more. So they don’t want any limits. And they have very effectively lobbied the USDA to not have any limits.”

Read the complete article HERE.

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