07/08/2013 02:58 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

Good News: In New School Snack Rules, USDA Rejects a 'Nutritionism' Approach

As you probably read last week, the USDA has released its interim final rules for "competitive school foods," i.e., the snack items and drinks offered to school kids via vending machines, school stores, fundraisers, snack bars operated by the school cafeteria and other outlets. Currently, these foods are unregulated in many states and can consist of junk food and sugary beverages, both competing with the nutritionally-balanced federal school meal (hence the name, "competitive food") and undercutting efforts to reduce childhood obesity.

So when the USDA released its proposed snack rules back in February, they were widely regarded as a big leap forward in fostering children's health.  The rules placed sensible limits on fat, sugar and sodium, while encouraging the consumption of whole grains, dairy, fruits and vegetables.

Following an open, 60-day comment period, in which 247,871 comments were received by USDA, the differences between the proposed rules and the newly-released interim final rules are relatively few.  But there's been one modification to the rules that hasn't received much media attention, yet seems quite significant if you care about improving kids' eating habits.

Here's the issue. Under the proposed rules, school snack foods had to fall into one of two categories: They either had to be a fruit, vegetable, dairy product, protein food, "whole-grain rich" grain product, or a "combination food" that contains at least one-fourth cup of fruit or vegetable. OR they had to contain 10 percent of the Daily Value of naturally occurring calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or fiber.

At first that seems like a sound approach, since those last four nutrients -- calcium, potassium, Vitamin D and fiber -- have been determined to be "nutrients of concern," i.e., nutrients in which Americans are most lacking.  And many food advocates were happy to see that "naturally occurring" qualifier, which presumably would prevent the artificial fortification of otherwise "empty calorie" junk food.

But any time you focus on single nutrients as opposed to the entire food containing those nutrients -- a narrow mindset christened "nutritionism" and criticized most prominently by author Michael Pollan -- there are inevitable pitfalls.

As soon became clear from the comments submitted to USDA, this "naturally occurring" standard wasn't so clear cut.  What is "naturally occurring" in a processed snack food?  Arguably, packaged food companies might be able to shoehorn their products into the second category simply by fortifying them with a natural ingredient, such as adding nonfat dry milk powder to Baked Flamin' Hot Cheetos for "naturally occurring calcium."  And school districts rightly complained that they are ill-equipped to figure out if a nutrient in a given product is "naturally occurring" or artificially sourced, since such information is not required on product labeling.

And so in my own comment letter to USDA I advocated getting rid of the fortification option altogether.  I wrote:

I recommend that USDA simply drop this second, nutrient-only-based category of permissible foods.  If only fruits, vegetables, dairy products, protein foods, whole grain rich foods and combination foods are offered to schoolchildren, then we can rest assured that they will certainly be consuming a wide variety of nutrients, including the four nutrients of special concern:  calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and fiber.

But since I didn't see this idea put forth by any of the leading food policy groups I follow, I assumed my recommendation was such an outlier that it would never be considered by the agency.  Moreover, leading food manufacturers (including PepsiCo, which owns Frito-Lay, and the many major food manufacturers participating in the Children"s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, such as Coca-Cola, Nestle, Dannon and Unilever) argued for keeping fortification standard and dropping the "naturally occurring" qualifier -- presumably leaving the door wide open for "Baked Cool Ranch Doritos with Vitamin D."

So when USDA released its interim final rule, I was surprised to see that it is getting rid of the fortification category -- over a three-year period.  In other words, starting in school year 2016-17, the only allowable school snacks will be fruits, vegetables, dairy products, whole grain rich foods, protein foods or combination foods with at least a one-fourth cup of fruits or vegetables.  (Before 2016, the fortification option remains and the nutrients can come from any source, "naturally occurring" or not.)

Of course, the food industry isn't going to just walk away from the lucrative school snack market, but given that rigorous standard, it seems to me that any processed foods still sold in schools after 2016 should no longer fall into the empty-calorie, "better for you" junk food category.

There is a last comment period (ending Oct. 28) before the rules are finalized, and the food industry may yet try to convince USDA to reinstate the fortification standard.  If it does, let's hope USDA continues to reject a "nutritionism" approach and instead lives up to its stated desire to "encourage [children's] consumption of whole foods or foods closer to their whole state."

For more by Bettina Elias Siegel, click here.

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