Banning Foods For “Healthier” Options?
A couple weeks ago the US Department of Agriculture announced the new “Smart Snacks in School” nutrition standards. The media was a flurry with supportive headlines “Goodbye M&M’s, hello granola bars”, “Banning junk food”, “USDA cracks down on unhealthy foods”, etc.. An astute reader sent me an email astonished that I hadn’t weighed in on this amazing move by our government.
The reason I hadn’t written this post is because I had to do some research, and as I expected not all that glitters is gold.
Banning Foods the USDA Way
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required the USDA to establish nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools. “Smart Snacks in School” was the outcome. The USDA calls this “balanced science-based nutrition guidelines” to “promote healthier eating on campus” and are designed as part of the government’s effort to combat childhood obesity. Essentially banning certain types of foods.
With much excitement it was announced that full-calorie sodas, sports drinks, and candy bars will no longer be available in lunch rooms or school vending machines. Instead, schools will sell diet drinks, granola bars and fruit. I’m supposed to be thrilled about diet drinks and granola bars????? I’ve already written about the problems of the perceived healthfulness of granola bars. (Feel free to read it again here) And, don’t even get me started again on the death nail of artificial sweeteners! (Read about it here). I’m not against banning these items but I do question the replacements.
Banning Foods – The Breakdown on Calories
I looked up the new rules being touted as “healthy”. Sodas and sports drinks are allowed if they contain 60 calories or less in a 12-ounce serving, banning the highest-calorie versions of those beverages. But, many companies already have developed low-calorie sports drinks, diet sodas, and diet teas. So kids are still allowed the flavored, colored, artificially sweetened, oh and brominated vegetable oil, all mixed in water with no nutrients. Gatorade’s G2 was consistently noted as a great alternative in many of the articles I read. I’ve already written about the faÃ§ade of this drink (read about it here) so I won’t go into it again.
Additionally, elementary and middle schools can only sell water, carbonated water, 100% fruit or vegetable juice, and low fat and fat-free milk, including nonfat flavored milks. I love the “only water” part and the 100% vegetable juice (although I don’t know many kids that will probably partake), but I’m lost after that. Real fruit – okay. Fruit juice – not so much. (Read here for my thoughts on the problems with fruit juice). And nonfat flavored milks? You have GOT to be kidding me! Pasteurized, homogenized dead milk without any fat for nutrient absorption PLUS artificial flavorings, colorings, sugar, and synthetic vitamins. For the gist of this problem read here about nonfat smoothie health issues. Banning some of these foods makes sense but the alternatives are questionable.
This is all based on hitting the “proper” caloric ratio – although nothing stops a kid from buying more than one of anything – which with nonfat foods, they probably will. So we end up with the same ‘calories in vs. calories out’ question. (Read here). Plus, when it comes to obesity there’s a lot of question as to whether we are looking at the right issues (read here), banning foods may not be enough.
Banning Foods – The Breakdown on Sugar
Another piece of the “healthy” rules is that the item must have less than 35% sugar by weight – banning the candy bar and enter the wonderful granola bar. I pulled up a look at a few granola bars. I chose Nature Valley because I see kids eating these on the various athletic fields. Looks like they fit the new standards. Here are some of my concerns – canola oil (see my thoughts here), corn flour which is from genetically modified corn (read here), and soy (read here). Next, I looked at Special K since they seem to be the main “weight loss” bar. Here are some of my concerns – corn syrup (see genetically modified corn), soy again, partially hydrogenated oils (read here), artificial flavors and sweeteners again. Finally, I checked Cliff Bars as I see them in the health food stores. Not as many concerns but still soy. Banning the sugar is helpful but there are still concerns.
Banning Foods – The Breakdown on Trans Fat
The “healthy” rules continue with the recommendation of zero trans fat. I completely agree. Banning trans fat is great! Where it goes awry is that zero doesn’t equal zero for the USDA. Manufacturers can label a product as having zero trans fat as long as there is less than one half of a gram per serving. There’s no telling exactly how much is there, especially if you eat more than one serving. The recommendation is good but the labeling is false. (I’ve covered it here). Banning trans fat 100% would be best.
Banning Foods – I’ve Covered All This
As I looked through the new “healthy” rules I realized I’d covered most of this – as evidenced by all the ‘read here’ links. (Banning some other ingredients might be helpful – hint, hint). It’s like we digressed 30 years in our knowledge base. We’ve been here – we’ve done this and obesity is more of a problem than ever. At some point we have to look at the fact that overly processed foods with lots of artificial ingredients is the part of the problem – not part of the solution.
Banning Foods – Final Thoughts
This is why it took so long to decide how to write this post. I’m critical of the recommendations but I applaud the government for trying to make a difference by banning and limiting certain foods. I think it’s a start. It might be a false start, but at least it’s something. And, because of that, it’s hard for me to jump on the bandwagon for either side. Even an unhealthy granola bar is better than the best candy bar I could find, so maybe this will be a first step. Maybe a dialogue will start about the problems of processed foods no matter what the calories, fat, and sugar. Maybe people will begin to question the foods they eat. Many people will begin to educate themselves on the foods they eat. I can only hope and dream!