Here at FoodFacts.com we spend a lot of time talking about the nutritional uselessness of junk food. We’ve also spent a considerable amount of blog space talking about the new School nutritional standards and how they do seem to be improving the cafeteria consumption of our kids throughout the country. Today, however, we read about an interesting turn of events regarding those new nutritional standards and junk food. It’s fascinating how food manufacturers easily adapt to new definitions and how easily standards can be “bent.”
This week in Boston, the School Nutrition Association held a meeting where food manufacturers exhibited their new and “acceptable” products.
It appears that from the kinds of junk-food products exhibited, you would never know that the SNA was at war with the White House over USDA’s nutrition standards for school meals.
Food companies seem to have had no problem coming up with look-alike products that meet USDA standards:
More than 400 exhibitors showed off their innovations designed to meet the Department of Agriculture’s new regulations…PepsiCo, which owns Tropicana, Quaker and Lays, has a long list of products that meet the new rules, including Reduced Fat Doritos and Cheetos, Stacy’s Pita Chips and Munchies. Windsor Foods, which specializes in food service, has come up with whole grain-rich egg rolls that the company says kids love.
General Mills displayed a modified version of Chex Mix, a whole grain Betty Crocker cookie and a Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal bar: “Snacks so good, kids won’t know they’re nutritious,” according to the marketing flyers.
While the changes to lunch standards may be giving many school nutrition professionals fits, the food manufacturing industry is drooling over the opportunity to gain more sales inside what has been described as the nation’s largest restaurant: The school lunch program serves 30 million kids each day and represents a $30 billion per year market for the food industry, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The SNA benefits from the food industry’s enthusiasm in school lunches. The largest chunk of the group’s revenue is generated at its annual conference, which brought in $4.7 million in 2012. The association charges $15,000 to sponsor an education session track featuring a company representative and $20,000 to put company logos on hotel key cards.
To understand what this is about, take a look at the Public Health Advocacy Institute’s report on Copycat Snacks in Schools. The “better for you” versions are sold in schools, but you can hardly tell the difference between those and the “not so good for you” commercial versions from the nearly identical packages.
How can food and beverage companies get away with this? This is the result of USDA’s setting nutrient-based, rather than food-based standards for school meals. Setting nutrient standards allows food companies to tweak the formulas to give the USDA what it requires.
Better-for-you Chex Mix, reduced-fat Doritos, Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cereal Bars. Did anyone at the SNA take a look at the ingredient lists of these “improved” snack products? Do the terms “reduced fat” and “whole grain” completely define a product as nutritionally beneficial? We already know that package terminology means little in the grocery aisles. So why should those terms make a difference in school cafeterias? It’s not just the food industry that can do better here. It’s the School Nutrition Association and the USDA as well. Just our two cents.