Wednesday, July 24, 2013

USDA Funds $25K Study on Whether Kids’ Preference for Fat, Sugar Leads to Obesity

Good to see them researching the question instead of just leaping to conclusions

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is funding a study to determine if “preference for fat and sugar may have a role in overweight and obesity development” among African-American adolescents in Alabama.

The department announced the $25,000 grant to Tuskegee University in Tuskeegee, Ala., in April.

“This project will document taste preferences for fat and sweet foods in African American adolescents and enhance the research infrastructure and capacity in obesity, food product development and sensory evaluation research at Tuskegee University,” the USDA press release from April 2, 2013 said.

The project description from Tuskegee focused on “upgrading a computerized data collection and analysis system for sensory response in obesity and food product development.”

“Alabama ranks sixth nationwide with 36.1% of its children, ages 10-17 years, falling into the obese category,” the project summary said. “Increased preference for fat and sugar may have a role in overweight and obesity development.”

The study will evaluate taste preferences for African-American children in selected Alabama counties ranging in ages 12 to 17.

“It is hypothesized that a preference for fat and sweet foods would predict weight gain among African Americans,” the project description said.

The children will be recruited for the study through advertisements.

“Firstly, participants will be presented with randomly ordered solutions such as non-fat milk, whole milk, half and half, and cream containing different levels of sugar by weight,” the project description said. “Participants will rate the foods for sweetness, creaminess, and pleasantness using a 9-point hedonic scale.”

“Secondly, participants will also be asked to give lists of their favorite foods,” the description continued. “Foods will be grouped into high-fat, high-sugar, high carbohydrate, high protein categories, and participants will indicate their preferences using the 9-point hedonic scale.”

The project description said that the main objective is to “develop a community based, nutrition education program with and specifically for rural southern African Americans to prevent weight gain and decrease cancer risks” and “to investigate relationships between dietary patterns and markers for cancer risks among these children. Participants will be invited to volunteer for the preference testing before and upon completion of the study.”


Regulations Prompt Schools to Ditch Federal Lunch Subsidies

Approximately 200 school districts across the country have opted out of federal lunch requirements, leaving them free from regulations Michelle Obama pushed in 2010, but without federal subsidies for school lunches.

“It was basically about watching the amount of food get thrown away last year. The kids just didn’t like what we had to offer them,” said Gary Lewis, superintendent of Catlin Public Schools in Illinois. “The new guidelines from the federal level for us were too restrictive.”

Through the lunch program, the federal government dictates the type, amount, and even color of food in public schools.

Federal lunch programs began because students were coming to school malnourished, said Kay Brown, a director at the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“We still have hunger, and we have problems with obesity and all the challenges that presents,” she said. “The solution to that is the right amount of nutritious food.”

Brown presented a GAO report to Congress in June on the effects of 2010’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The report recommended changes to the law because GAO’s investigation found it increased useless calories in meals and food waste in cafeterias. About 200 schools have dropped the federal program because of its regulations and costs, according to the School Nutrition Association.

Higher Costs for Schools

The act will cost taxpayers another $3.2 billion over its first five years, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates. Districts are reporting fewer students purchasing lunch and costly equipment upgrades to cook the new menu.

Because of the regulations, Catlin lost somewhere between $5,000 and $7,000 last year, Lewis said. Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake district in New York served 22 percent fewer lunches and lost about $100,000.

“That was upsetting to everybody – the board of education, the school lunch manager,” said Christy Multer, a district spokesman. “She’s expected to operate her program in the black, to cover the cost of offering the lunches to students from the sales…. If you offer food that students don’t like, they won’t buy it.”

What Kids Won’t Eat

The HHFKA requires that schools serve a fruit or vegetable to students, even if those students will not eat it. GAO inspectors visited an elementary school that served children oranges, which many threw in the trash, Brown said.

“In that particular case, the effect is more on the nutrition the kids are not getting,” Brown said.

She said she saw similar waste in seven of the 17 schools she visited, but noted that most of the waste occurred in the youngest grades, and lunch period length may have been a factor.

The act mandates which kinds of vegetables students should be served – one from each of five categories per week. Many students readily eat beans within soup or chili, Multer said, but won’t eat them measured out in little cups the way the regulations directed.

The lunch manager was further challenged by requirements that food vendors hadn’t caught up with, Multer said. Three-ounce chicken patties, a more popular meal at the district, didn’t fit the 10-ounce-per-week cap for a protein-based entrée, which averages two ounces per day. Many students were disgruntled at seeing part of the patty cut off.

 “We wanted to give it a full year’s try, and we did,” Multer said. “We were hoping that maybe it would bounce back, the kids would get used to it, but it didn’t.”

Multer and Lewis said their districts will still offer free and reduced-price lunches, but local and not nationwide taxpayers will foot the bill.

“Some school districts have figured out a little better than others how to change their menus, or how to change the nutritional contents of the lunch program and make it appealing to kids,” Brown said. “Some have been introducing over a period of time some more healthy foods. .... Over time, acceptance was improving.”

Balancing Authority, Responsibility

Multer said her district provided healthy lunches before HHFKA, and so do many districts. Each district’s challenges are different, Brown said.

“There’s such huge variety from one [school district] to another,” she said. “Some have really diverse populations, and they have to decide what kinds of ethnic foods students will accept, and some have fewer students eligible for free and reduced-price meals, and who can go off campus to buy their own food.”

Parents are an important part of keeping kids healthy, Multer said.

“The question becomes: What’s the role of the parent to ensure that each child is exposed to a wide variety of vegetables for their health versus the role of the school district?” she said. “Schools also have an obligation to work with parents to ensure that. We need to involve parents in that. I think the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has called attention to this and maybe this is something that will promote more parents to take a more active role in their children’s eating.”

Taking responsibility for school lunches means upset parents are now the district’s fault, Lewis noted, which makes them more responsive to parent concerns.

“How do you ensure healthy children and healthy adults?” Multer asked. “Some things you can legislate and some things maybe you can’t legislate. You can’t legislate kids to like sweet potatoes.”


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