The U.S Department of Agriculture has proposed a complete overhaul of school lunches subsidized by the federal government. These changes, to be implemented over a period of years, aim to limit calories, reduce sodium and increase the consumption of vegetables and whole grains. Improved nutrition is a laudable goal, but the realities of science and nutrition may surprise the government. Scientific studies show that kids are more likely to eat their vegetables if they have adequate salt.
Dark green vegetables like spinach and broccoli are amongst the most nutritious foods. However, they all contain very bitter phytochemicals that affect their taste. Broccoli is a perfect example. Everyone knows that adding salt to these vegetables makes them taste much better and reducing salt use will mean fewer vegetables get eaten by kids, if at all.
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 adversely affected the tasters’ nutrient intake.
In another 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.
A University of Vermont study to measure food consumption in schools before and after the salt reduction mandate confirmed what school lunch officials feared: they witnessed most students putting fruits and vegetables into the trash instead of their mouths. The study showed that although students were required to place more fruits and vegetables on their trays, they ate less of each.
When students were involved in setting choices, several new student-approved recipes were added to the menu: barbeque chicken, buffalo chicken wraps, chicken salad wraps and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. All savory comfort foods that everyone enjoys. It was a stark reminder that you cannot impose bland foods on individuals. And there is a reason for that – our bodies are telling us that we need sufficient amounts of the essential nutrient, sodium. Public health policy that is not based on evidence cannot outdo our bodies built-in mechanisms demanding those nutrients.
Without salt, serious consequences arise. Per Dr. Michael Alderman of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, until the medical community has adequately studied the effects of population wide sodium reduction, it is best to exercise caution. “I’m concerned that experiments in population wide sodium reduction are making Americans, children and adults, guinea pigs. For instance, my research indicates that cardiac patients put on low salt diets had a higher rate of cardiac events than cardiac patients on normal sodium diets. We need to proceed carefully here so that we don’t cause harm.”
If the United States continues down a path of forced sodium reduction, with no recognition of the science indicating many negative effects of such reduction, American children may have more serious worries than bland food and a diet lacking in vegetables.