High school kids in California, a state that limits the junk food sold in vending machines, eat fewer calories in school than kids in states without such regulations, according to a new study.
“We were definitely pleased by the size of the differences, particularly for calories and sugar,” said Daniel Taber, the study’s lead author and a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The study doesn’t show that students are necessarily replacing unhealthy foods with healthier ones, but the California law “was a bold first step” to improving children’s diets, said Patricia Crawford, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the study.
Several years ago, California mandated that schools offer so-called competitive food - that is, food sold in vending machines or other sources outside of the school lunch service - that meets calorie, fat and sugar limits.
Each snack has to have fewer than 250 calories, no more than 35 percent of calories from fat and no more than 35 percent of its weight from added sugars.
To determine what impact California’s regulations have had on students’ diets, Taber and his colleagues compared how much children in California ate each day to kids who lived in 14 states that did not have such limits on the foods sold in school.
The study - published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine - used survey information, collected in the first half of 2010, from more than 100 kids who lived in California and about 560 kids who lived in other states.
The researchers found that the California kids ate 158 fewer calories each day than the other kids, primarily because they ate fewer calories during school hours.
Although the study did not look at whether kids’ diets had an impact on their health, “a difference of 158 calories can go a long way toward preventing excess weight gain, particularly if students maintain a healthy level of physical activity,” according to Taber.
The California children also ate 17 fewer grams of sugar than the other kids.
“These laws were specifically designed to improve students’ intake at school, and that is exactly what the evidence suggests they achieved,” Taber told Reuters Health in an email.
The kids don’t necessarily choose healthy foods over unhealthy foods, however.
The Californians ate the same proportion of vitamins and minerals as the kids from other states.
“All states could focus on providing more healthy foods in schools, in addition to banning high-fat, high-sugar, high-calorie foods and beverages,” said Taber.
Taber said other states have taken action to restrict the least healthy foods in school, but California has been the one of the most ambitious in terms of also offering healthier foods.
“They should definitely be applauded for their actions. But I think the lesson is that even their laws were only a starting point,” Taber said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is developing federal standards for what foods kids would have access to in vending machines or from a la carte lines at schools.
A recent poll found that most parents support the stricter guidelines (see Reuters Health story of April 19, 2012).
The USDA has already set standards for school lunches that are expected to make the meals healthier.
Crawford said the study is a good first step in examining the dietary benefits of California’s laws.
“I’m glad they did the first step here to look at the nutritional benefits,” she told Reuters Health. “Because they are benefits, we just need to go further.”
SOURCE: Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, May 2012.
Differences in Nutrient Intake Associated With State Laws Regarding Fat, Sugar, and Caloric Content of Competitive Foods
Results On average, California students reported consuming less fat, sugar, and total calories at school than students in states with no competitive food nutrition standards. California students also reported less at-school intake of vitamins and minerals. All at-school differences in nutrient intake were null after adjusting for total caloric intake; California students consumed a lower proportion of their daily calories in school (21.5%) than students in other states (28.4%). Mean overall intake was lower in California for most measures that were analyzed, particularly added sugars.
Conclusions California high school students consumed lower quantities of fat, sugar, and calories in school than students in states with no competitive food nutrition standards, but the nutrition composition of California students’ in-school diet was similar. Policy initiatives should promote competitive foods that are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Several studies have demonstrated the poor nutrition content of foods and beverages sold in schools in the United States. Federally reimbursable school meals must abide by nutrition standards set by the US Department of Agriculture, but individual foods and beverages sold in vending machines, school stores, and cafeterias (a’ la carte) have historically been exempt from federal regulation except for restrictions on the sale of foods of minimal nutrition value. Foods of minimal nutrition value include only a small number of specific items such as hard candies, gum, and soda. Competitive foods are commonly foods of high caloric density and low nutrient density, and school food environments tend to become progressively less healthy at higher grade levels. In 2007-2008, 77% of high schools nationwide offered regular-fat and sugar snacks in competitive venues.
Policy initiatives designed to regulate nutrition content of competitive foods are increasingly being promoted at the federal, state, and local levels. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires, among several provisions, that the US Department of Agriculture develop regulations specifying nutrition standards for all competitive foods sold in schools that participate in federally reimbursable school meal programs. This will be the first attempt to regulate competitive food nutrition content on a national scale, although some states have already taken legislative and/or regulatory action to implement similar standards. As implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 begins, policy makers can benefit from research on existing state regulations to identify areas where standards have been successful as well as potential pitfalls.
California was one of the first states to regulate competitive food nutrition content. State Senate Bill 12, effective July 2007, required several nutrition standards for competitive foods at all grade levels, including limiting the number of calories and the fat, saturated fat, and sugar content of snacks sold in schools. State Senate Bill 965 banned the sale of soda and other sweetened beverages in high schools and was scheduled to be fully implemented by July 2009. Several studies have documented California’s success in improving the nutrition content of competitive foods since the laws went into effect. Woodward-Lopez et al collected several measures of food and beverage availability in California schools and student intake of select food items and reported several improvements following implementation of State Senate Bill. They were cautiously optimistic, though, as they found that many compliant foods and beverages had limited nutrition value and that at-school intake of vegetables declined following the legislation. Without using another state as a control, it is also difficult to determine whether the positive changes in California were attributable to legislation or reflected secular trends taking place nationwide.
Daniel R. Taber, PhD; Jamie F. Chriqui, PhD, MHS; Frank J. Chaloupka, PhD