03/28/2014 11:14 am ET Updated May 28, 2014

Does Healthy Food Sell?

What can be more wholesome than an athletic event at school? I've been to many, and my frequent regret is that the foods and drinks offered during these games almost undo the message and purpose of sport's healthfulness.

"It's what kids eat," is the recurrent response, "and we need the money." 

For those of you dreaming about healthier concession stands that don't bust the budget, here's an interesting experiment. 

Better-for-you tested

The parent booster club of Muscatine high school, Iowa, partnered with researchers from the University of Iowa Medical School, led by Dr. Helena Laroche, to test how healthier options affect student's food choices and purchases.

Rather than restricting unhealthy options, the makeover focused on adding a few healthier options: apples, baby carrots with dip, chicken sandwiches, granola bars, pickles, soft pretzels, string cheese, and trail mix. They also substituted canola oil for coconut oil bars in the popcorn (reducing saturated fat and trans-fat) and the cheese in the nachos was replaced with one without trans-fat.

There was no push for the healthier options, but those nevertheless sold and comprised 9.2 percent of the revenues at the school's subsequent football games and swim meets. What's more, sales of healthier items increased game after game, suggesting that with growing awareness healthier choices became more popular. The modified popcorn and nachos sold just as well as the old versions. Revenues did not suffer and there were also no complaints: students surveyed were satisfied with the concession stand's offerings, and welcomed the new healthier additions, and parents were happier with the overall changes.

Offer better choices, and they will come!

School food is undergoing a significant transformation. The subsidized school lunch has to comply with improving nutrition standards. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture also announced new proposed standards for snacks sold at schools that limit the amount of calories, fat, sugar and sodium of most foods sold there, and encourage whole grains, low fat, fruits and veggies.

Perhaps anticipating the backlash, the proposal exempted fundraisers, after-school sports events and treats sent by parents.

So while laws do not apply to concession stands -- at least not yet -- this pilot study is encouraging. For parents and schools that want better foods: Kids will eat them, and for those worried about the bottom line, healthier options do sell.

Dr. Ayala

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