A healthy school food environment extends beyond what is served in the lunch line. Researchers from the University of Michigan Medical School recently investigated the impact that “competitive foods and beverages” sold at school-based stores, snack bars, and vending machines had on children’s food choices during the school day. These products are not part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, but are offered to students in the school environment and can influence their dietary choices.
To examine the role of competitive foods and beverages in the diets of school-age children, the researchers used information obtained from the USDA’s School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study (SNDA). The SNDA is an evaluation of the nutritional quality of foods present in the diets of a nationally representative sample of children in grades one to twelve. It provides information about how often competitive foods are eaten, which competitive food is the most popular choice, and what percentage of the children’s total nutrient intake comes from competitive foods.
The subjects included 2309 students from schools located across the 48 contiguous states in the U.S.. Twenty-four hour food recall questionnaires were administered on a school day by trained interviewers. To account for day-to-day nutritional intakes, data on food consumption was taken from a subset of children on a second day.
The results of the study revealed that 22 percent of the school children surveyed consumed competitive foods and beverages. High school students had the greatest consumption of competitive foods and beverages, most likely as a result of a greater independence to make dietary choices and increased access to money for purchases, according to the researchers. Data also indicated that consumption of competitive foods and beverages accounted for 11% of the total calorie intake of those students who purchased them. Total caloric intake was significantly greater for those who chose to eat these items by approximately 250 calories. Sugar intake was also higher; however, sodium intake was lower for consumers of the competitive foods and beverages. Consumption of dietary fiber, iron, and the B vitamins were also lower in children who consumed these items.
The investigators conclude that the additional 250 calories per day could lead to an extra weight gain of 14 pounds per year–a fact that should not be overlooked in light of the current childhood obesity epidemic. Obesity is associated with an increased risk for the development of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Low fiber intakes can lead to digestive problems and increase risk for certain cancers.
In addition to providing education about making healthy food choices, schools and parents need to make an effort to improve the nutritional quality of the foods and beverages made available to students in school-based stores, snack bars, and vending machines.
Journal of School Health; September 2010, Vol. 80, No.9; pp.430-435; Schoolchildren’s Consumption of Competetive Foods and Beverages”; K. Madjuri et al.,.