Cool Clicks
Will new school lunch programs discourage kids from eating their veggies?

(ARA) - School lunches will be changing, thanks to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's complete overhaul of federally subsidized school lunch programs. But will all the changes be for the better? Possibly not, according to some experts and studies.

The changes, implemented over a period of years, aim to limit calories, reduce sodium and increase the consumption of vegetables and whole grains. "Improved nutrition is a laudable goal, but the realities of science and nutrition may surprise the government," says Morton Satin of the Salt Institute in Alexandria, Va. "Scientific studies show that kids are more likely to eat their vegetables if they have adequate salt."

"The promotion of healthy food choices in schools should be driven by knowledge and understanding of science and nutrition," Satin says. Dark green vegetables are among the most nutritious foods. However, they all contain very bitter phytochemicals that affect their palatability. Broccoli is a perfect example. Adding salt to these vegetables makes them taste much better. "There is a natural concern by some as to whether the current salt reduction ideology may end up having a negative impact on nutritious food choices and overall health," Satin adds.

A recent research paper from the University of Pennsylvania examined the response of tasters to varying amounts of salt in a range of foods that were naturally bitter, including vegetables and other foods deemed to be healthy. Reducing the salt intake made these foods less appealing, and as a result adversely affected the tasters' nutrient intake.

Vegetables - YUCKIn another double-blind taste panel study conducted at Ohio State University, cooked broccoli was fed to individuals from three different age groups: children, adults and senior citizens. The broccoli florets were prepared with different levels of salt and the results made it clear that, even though participants were unaware as to which sample was which, salt significantly increased broccoli's palatability. Both children and seniors liked broccoli better with more salt on it -- up to 350 mg per 85 g serving of broccoli, the highest level of salt used for these two groups. For both children and adults, the broccoli's bitterness decreased as the level of salt increased.

"Based upon these results, it is likely that policies promoting population-wide restriction of salt in foods may result in significant segments of the population responding by avoiding the more bitter, but far more nutritious food choices or simply reaching for the salt shaker to make bitter better," Satin says.

In the United Kingdom similar actions backfired. Their government outlawed the use of salt in schools in 2005. Writing in the UK Telegraph, journalist Paul Eastham complained that, since the school ban on saltshakers, his 14-year-old daughter stopped eating vegetables, because they were so bland.

"All the goodness they promise to deliver remains untouched on the plate - a complete waste of nutrients, health potential and money - all because they remain unpalatable," Eastham wrote. "My daughter might not touch the 'bland' vegetables at school, but at home - where she is allowed to use salt - she clears her plate."

The World Health Organization points to iodized salt as key to eliminating iodine deficiency disorders, one of the most common - and preventable - world-wide causes of brain damage. The WHO calls iodized salt a "spectacularly simple, universally effective, wildly attractive and incredibly cheap 'weapon' against childhood mental retardation."

"Salt is a necessary nutrient," Satin notes. "Without adequate intake, serious consequences arise. If the United States continues down a path of forced sodium reduction, with no recognition of the science indicating many negative effects of such reduction, American children may have more serious worries than bland food and a diet lacking in vegetables. In some countries where pregnant women and children do not consume enough iodized salt, cognitive development is a serious problem in children. This is a problem remedied many years ago in the United States through the iodization of salt."

While proponents of the school lunch sodium reduction campaign may have the best of intentions for children, some science and health experts are skeptical. "I predict a lot of salad and vegetables will go in the trash can at local schools," says Lisa Katic, a registered dietician. "This will not help us improve childhood nutrition."