Good nutrition for school children is a priority that everyone can support but not everyone can agree on the best way to achieve it. Recent changes by the U.S. Department of Agriculture require schools drastically alter their programs in ways that are hard to meet. Children in particular are rejecting the new meals in droves, defeating the very intent of the program.
The School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents over 50,000 school nutritionists and cafeteria professionals, has called on Congress to relax these new standards specifically in regards to the amount of whole grains offered, sodium reduction targets they consider unachievable and not science-based and mandatory fruit and vegetable servings which invariably end up in the trash.
The salt reduction efforts in particular are causing serious concerns. Dark green vegetables are among the most nutritious foods. However, they all contain very bitter phytochemicals. Broccoli is a perfect example. Adding salt to these vegetables makes them taste much better. Mandating servings of vegetables for children while simultaneously requiring drastic reductions in salt use virtually guarantees that they will not be eaten and valuable nutrients will be missed.
A research paper from the University of Pennsylvania examined the response of tasters to varying amounts of salt in a range of foods that were naturally bitter, including vegetables and other foods deemed to be healthy. Reducing the salt intake made these foods less appealing, and as a result adversely affected the tasters’ nutrient intake.
In another double-blind taste panel study conducted at Ohio State University, cooked broccoli was fed to individuals from three different age groups: children, adults and senior citizens. The broccoli florets were prepared with different levels of salt and the results made it clear that, even though participants were unaware as to which sample was which, salt significantly increased broccoli’s palatability. Both children and seniors liked broccoli better with more salt on it. For both children and adults, the broccoli’s bitterness decreased as the level of salt increased.
Salt itself is also an essential nutrient children need. They also need the iodine which producers started adding to table salt almost 100 years ago. In fact, the World Health Organization points to iodized salt as key to eliminating iodine deficiency disorders, one of the most common and preventable world-wide causes of brain damage. The WHO calls iodized salt a “spectacularly simple, universally effective, wildly attractive and incredibly cheap ‘weapon’ against childhood mental retardation.”
The SNA has good cause to ask for more scientific research on sodium reduction and health given a recent Institute for Medicine report which concluded that there was insufficient research to support sodium reduction efforts and that evidence actually suggested that low salt diets were harmful. A study published in the American Journal of Hypertension further found that Americans on average already currently consume sodium within the optimally healthy range and sodium reduction efforts will cause harm.
According to SNA President Leah Schmidt, “The professionals working in school cafeterias are the front line experts, charged with the responsibility of feeding 30 million students each day – all with different tastes, appetites and preferences. We’re just looking for some flexibility from those in Washington to ensure our kids are getting the nourishment they need to be successful.”