WEDNESDAY, April 25, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- In an effort to curb skyrocketing childhood obesity rates, U.S. health officials unveiled nutrition standards Wednesday for foods and beverages that compete with federal school meal programs.
This means potentially unhealthy foods available to elementary, middle and high school students from cafeterias, snack bars and increasingly ubiquitous vending machines.
"There's no regulation (of these foods) in schools, so schools have become a big haven for pretty much everything," said Geri Brewster, a registered dietician and wellness consultant for Northern Westchester Hospital Center in Mount Kisco, N.Y. "It's going to come down to pay now or pay later."
The report, Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools: Leading the Way to Healthier Youth, was released Wednesday by the Institute of Medicine and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was originally requested by Congress.
Lisa Harper Mallonee, a registered dietician and assistant professor of dental hygiene at Texas A&M Health Science Center Baylor College of Dentistry, called the recommendations "wonderful," but emphasized that intensive efforts will be needed to make them work.
"It's not just federal agencies and industry -- it has to be grassroots," she said. "It's going to have to be schools, parents, everyone working within schools to actually get it into motion."
According to the CDC, the prevalence of overweight among children aged 6 to 11 has more than doubled in the past 20 years, jumping from 7 percent in 1980 to 18.8 percent in 2004. Among teens, the rate almost tripled, from 5 percent to 17.1 percent. This trend may be fueled partly by high-calorie, low-nutrient foods available in schools. Unlike foods from federally reimbursable school nutrition programs, these foods do not have to conform to any nutritional guidelines or recommendations.
One report found that nine out of 10 schools sell so-called competitive foods in snack bars and vending machines.
"It goes beyond obesity," Brewster said. "Our kids are a lot sicker than they ever were before."
Local education agencies were required to develop wellness policies by 2006 and, while steps have been taken, progress has been uneven. The new report was partially intended to augment these policies.
The committee authoring this report first divided foods and beverages into two tiers, based on how well they conform to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Tier 1 foods and beverages provide at least one serving of fruit, vegetable and/or whole grains or nonfat/low-fat dairy.
Tier 2 items do not meet Tier 1 specifications but aren't entirely outside dietary intake recommendations. These might include baked potato chips, low-sodium whole wheat crackers or animal crackers.
The committee then developed the following set of "standards":
- Snacks, foods and beverages should derive no more than 35 percent of total calories from fat, less than 10 percent of total calories from saturated fats and be trans fat-free.
- Snacks, foods and beverages should get no more than 35 percent of calories from total sugars, unless they are 100 percent fruit or fruit juices without added sugars, 100 percent vegetables and vegetables juices without added sugars and unflavored nonfat and low-fat milk and yogurt.
- Snack items should be 200 calories or less per portion. A la carte entrees should not exceed calorie limits on comparable National School Lunch Program items.
- Snack items should have 200 milligrams of sodium or less per portion as packaged or 480 milligrams or less per entree portion if served a la carte.
- Beverages containing non-nutritive sweeteners should only be allowed in high schools after the end of the school day. No recommendations on non-nutritive sweeteners in food were given.
- Available foods and beverages should be caffeine-free, except for trace amounts of naturally occurring caffeine-related substances.
- Foods and beverages offered during the school day should be limited to those in Tier 1.
- Plain, potable water (i.e. not carbonated, fortified or flavored) should be made available throughout the school day at no cost to students.
- Sports drinks should not be made available, unless they are provided by the school for student-athletes participating in sports programs involving high-intensity activity for more than one hour at a time.
- Foods and beverages should not be used as rewards or for disciplinary purposes.
- Marketing of Tier 2 items should be minimized by locating distribution in low student traffic areas and ensuring that exteriors of vending machines meeting certain standards.
- Tier 1 snack items should be permitted for after-school student activities for elementary and middle schools. Tier 1 and Tier 2 snacks should be allowed after school for high schools.
- Only Tier 1 items should be permitted for elementary and middle school on-campus fund-raising that takes place during the school day. Both Tier 1 and Tier 2 foods and beverages should be allowed for high schools. For evening and community activities that include adults, both Tier 1 and Tier 2 foods and beverages should be "encouraged."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture can tell you more about how kids can eat a healthful diet.