One of the most disturbing things I saw during the week I spent in the kitchen at my daughter’s elementary school recently was all the sugar being served to children. From the Pop Tarts and Apple Jacks on the breakfast line, to the fruit juice, the chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk on constant display, to the fruit mix in “light syrup” offered with lunch, sugar is ever-present at H.D. Cooke Elementary. So it is in most public schools.
And we haven’t even begun to talk about all the birthdays and other celebrations and even everyday events where cookies and cakes and candy are commonly dished out at school. At a recent “family game night” at H.D. Cooke, every table had bowls of Hershey’s Chocolate Kisses for the taking. Sources for sugar seem to be everywhere, all the time: You can hardly spend an evening with the family without a dose of sugar.
In the midst of a childhood obesity epidemic, is it time to stand up to sugar and the empty calories it represents? According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the rate of adolescent obesity in the District is the highest in the nation. Former U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler–who has battled his own weight issues–argues in a best-selling book embraced by Michelle Obama’s policy team that Americans are fat because they’re addicted to convenience foods laced with fat, salt, sugar. Should schools be enabling an addiction to sugar?
“Healthy Schools” legislation now pending before the D.C. Council may present a perfect opportunity to break the cycle of junk food and obesity in the District, or at least reduce children’s exposure to sugar in school. But in writing the bill, Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), did not address the issue of sugar in meals, except to prohibit foods that are 35 percent or more sugar by weight. She specifically exempted fruit juice and flavored milk from nutrition standards that otherwise eliminate sodas, sports drinks and other kinds of sugary beverages.
As you can see in the interview with Cheh that I published here yesterday, she said her reason for allowing the legislation to go forward with sugary fruit juice and flavored milk intact was that none of the nutrition and health types who attended a background meeting with her staff on this issue voiced any concern. Among those present at the meeting: The Pew Trusts, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Healthy Living Inc., Advocates for Better Children’s Diets, D.C. Cancer Consortium, D.C. Hunger Solutions, Food Research and Action Center, University of the District of Columbia Center for Nutrition, Diet and Health, Children’s National Medical Center.
None of these folks had anything to say about all the sugar being consumed in schools? I went looking for authorities who do hold strong opinions about sugar in school food and especially in fruit juice and flavored milk. They are not hard to find.
Marion Nestle is a nationally renowned nutritionist, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, and author of the books Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, and What to Eat. Nestle had this to say: “This is a tough one. The rationale for sugared milks is that they are all kids will drink. They (the dairy industry) think they have plenty of evidence that milk sales go down when the sugar is removed. I have an extreme position on this: I think ALL sugar-added drinks should be removed from schools, all sodas, all juice drinks, all milks. Juice can remain if it’s 100% and in small servings, but none of this reconstituted stuff that is sweeter than natural juice. But that’s just me.”
Marlene Schwartz is the deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. Schwartz has written: “Chocolate milk is not the nutritional equivalent of regular milk. It is significantly higher in calories, sugar (often high fructose corn syrup), sodium, and usually contains artificial colors and flavors.” Children, Schwartz says, have only a few “discretionary calories” to spend on sugary foods. “So,” she told me via e-mail, “my professional feeling is that discretionary calories (added sugar, fat) should be eaten at home, not at school. I am in favor of schools focusing on providing key nutrients to children at school and not getting into the business of providing them with ‘treats.’ ”
Ann Cooper is the “renegade lunch lady” who famously teamed with Alice Waters to make fresh food from local ingredients for schools in Berkely, Calif. She is now nutritionist for schools in Boulder, Col. She had this to say: “A little of anything is no big deal. But the amount of sugar we see in schools is really the issue. It’s one thing if there’s a little natural sugar in juice. But the idea that we would have our kids eating such a trememndous amount sugar–in cereal, in milk, in canned fruits, in condiments—the whole thing is just ridiculous. And it’s processed food.” The health consequences concern Cooper. “Not only are kids getting addicted to sugar, it’s driving up their insulin levels,” leading to diseases such as obesity and diabetes and “the first generation of kids that will have a shorter lifespan than their parents.”
Nutritionist Susan Rubin, in Westchester County, New York, was a prominent subject of the film Two Angry Moms and runs an organization and website called Better School Food. Rubin had this to say: “I think its essential that we re-frame what refined sugar is. It’s not simply ‘empty calories’ as the food industry and the dieticians ( American Dietetic Association, funded by the food industry and the sugar industry) would have us believe. Refined sugar is an ANTI NUTRIENT. Just to name a few points, sugar depletes micro- nutrients such as B vitamins, raises blood sugar, causes behavioral and attention problems in some, is addictive. Flavored milks don’t just contain sugar, they’ve got artificial colors and flavors.”
Tony Geraci, food services director for Baltimore city schools, has won national acclaim for introducing fresh, local foods into school meals there. Geraci had this to say: “I tend to think flavored milk is a bit like soda in drag. In some cases flavored milk has more sugar in it than some brands of soda…The milk lobby as you know has more money and power than any single food industry except maybe Monsanto with corn and soy. Until that is addressed, change will be hard to implement.”
As I discussed in part four of my series, sugar has come to play a prominent role in the federally subsidized meal program. Some call it the “stealth” ingredient. This because meal planners stuggle to design menus that meet the federal government’s stringent restrictions on fat in school meals–30 percent of calories or less–and still provide the minumum number of calories the government requires, and all within a tight budget. Although it has no nutritional value, sugar is a cheap source of calories, and federal rules–like “Healthy Schools”–place no limit on the amount of sugar that can be served in school meals. This makes sugar, usually in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, highly appealing in the cash-strapped universe of school cafeterias.
The chocolate milk served at my daughter’s school, from Cloverland Dairy in Baltimore, contains 26 grams of sugar–about six teaspoons–only slightly less than Classic Coke (27 grams). The strawberry milk is sweeter still. It has 28 grams of sugar, putting it almost in the same league as Mountain Dew (31 grams). By comparison, a similar serving of regular white milk contains 13 grams of sugar in the form of naturally occurring lactose.
A four-ounce container of apple juice contains 13 grams of sugar–three teaspoons–the same, ounce-for-ounce, as Coca-Cola. A single serving of the strawberry-flavored Pop Tarts at H.D. Cooke also delivers 13 grams of sugar, the Apple Jacks eight grams, or nearly 2 teaspoons of sugar, in a .63-ounce serving.
The dairy industry, which sells the majority of its flavored milk products in schools, argues that the added sugar in flavored milk is a worthwhile tradeoff for the calcium and Vitamin D in milk, and that kids won’t drink milk if it isn’t sweetened with added sugar. Funding for an industry campaign to defend flavored milk–”Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk”– is actually administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Here’s how Nestle describes it on her blog, Food Politics:
“This, you will not be surprised to hear, is the latest activity funded by the milk checkoff program, a USDA-administered program that requires certain commodity producers to contribute funds to a kitty to be used for generic marketing. One such program is MilkPEP (Milk Processor Education Program), the incredibly well funded marketing group that together with the Dairy Council invented the ‘Got Milk’ mustache campaign.
“MilkPEP is now the proud defender of chocolate milk against efforts to get it out of schools. Why would anyone be so mean as to want to do that? Maybe because chocolate milk has more sugar and calories than plain milk? No matter. MilkPEP is stepping up to the plate. Its $500,000 to $1,000,000 ‘raise your hand for chocolate milk’ campaign takes on those pesky nutrition advocates who think that kids ought to be eating something other than sweets in schools.”
According to Schwartz at the Rudd Center, the dairy industry is relying for its claims on a “study” conducted in Connecticut by Chartwells, the same company now under fire over the quality of the food it is serving in D.C. schools and elsewhere. “There are several problems with this study,” Schwartz said. She said it’s unclear whether the milk being measured was from the reimbursable lunch program or from “a la carte” sales. And when Schwartz tried to contact the study’s authors months ago for clarification “they never got back to me, which is extremely unprofessional.” In addition, the schools that were the focus of the study are among the richest in the nation and “extremely unrepresentative.”
“What is driving me nuts,” Schwartz said, “is that this study keeps getting cited by the industry as evidence of the terrible damage that will be done if you remove chocolate milk and that is a huge overstatement of the science.”
So is it true? Is there no way children will drink regular milk? I know I did when I was a kid.
Similar concerns were voiced when New York City in 2005 opted to switch from whole milk in its schools to low-fat and non-fat varieties. But a recent study of milk drinking habits among the city’s 1.1 million schoolchildren revealed that while milk consumption did drop some 8 percent after the change, milk consumption has since recovered and is now 1.3 percent higher than it was before the switch.
Cooper said she eliminated flavored milk from school cafeterias in Boulder when she recently took over as nutritionist there. Kids are still drinking milk, she said. “The kids are drinking one-percent organic milk and not everybody is happy,” she said. “It’s sort of like, for the first few weeks, ‘Where’s the chocolate milk?’ Now, nobody asks and things are moving along. But since when do we let kids decide what’s best for them?”
“”Some food service directors say that when they don’t serve chocolate milk, the kids just take the white milk and it’s fine,” said Schwartz. “I don’t think removing chocolate milk and selling only plain milk will make much of a difference in the amount of milk taken as part of the lunch in elementary schools – especially in a district where many of the kids get free lunch and don’t have additional income to buy a non-reimbursible drink a la carte.”
According to Schwartz, some school districts now limit offering flavored milk to just one day a week. Standards for school meals in Connecticut restrict the amount of sugar that can be added to flavored milk (here and here (PDF)). “This cap is meaningful because the average amount of sugar in flavored milk in Connecticut is lower than the national average.” she said.
The issue of sugar in school meals has not received much scrutiny here in the District of Columbia. But that’s no reason to give it a pass, especially when “Healthy Schools” legislation is coming up for a hearing next week. Maybe it’s time for parents to step up and take a stand.
A pubilc hearing on “Healthy Schools” legislation is scheduled for Feb. 10, beginning at 10 a.m. in room 412 of the John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. You can sign up to testify by e-mail here: ABenjamin@DCCOUNCIL.US.