School lunch nutrient-based loopholes

A number of you have asked me to explain in more detail (after listening to me on Sound Medicine) why nutrient based regulations for school lunches can be a bad idea.  Specifically, you want to know why I have a problem with limiting the percentage of calories that can come from fat.

First of all, I have no problem with the idea of keeping the number of fat calories low.  That makes intuitive sense.  The problem is that, sometimes, by focusing on the nutrients and not the food, you can lead schools to do bad things.

Let’s say we mandate that you can’t have more than 25% of calories come from fat in a meal.  Then, let’s say that on the abysmally low amount we give schools to make lunches, they come up with a burger and fries that are passable.  The lunch has 700 calories.  One problem – 200 calories are from fat.  That’s 29%; it’s too much.

Now, the school could try and start over.  But it’s easy to make fries and they already bought the burgers and buns.  They can’t remove fat.  But what they can do is increase the calories in the lunch!  If they give the kids a couple of cheap candies – 100 cal0ries of pure sugar – then now the lunch has 800 calories.  Because 200 calories still only come from fat, they’ve now met the 25% rule.

Is this good for kids?  Absolutely not.  It would be much better to have food based (not nutrient based) guidelines that would require the school to make a healthier lunch without resorting to candy.  That’s part of what the new law hopes to do.

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