By Eleanor Yang Su, The Center for Investigative Reporting
Almost everything about a school cafeteria meal has a regulation. The federal government caps the amount of fat and salt in breakfasts and lunches. It sets minimum standards for servings of fruit, vegetables, grains, milk and meat.
But one widely used and often-overused product has no official limits: sugar.
As Congress faces increased scrutiny over subsidies to the sugar industry, nutritionists and anti-obesity crusaders are focusing on the amount of sugar in school meals – and asking whether regulations governing school lunches deliberately exclude limits on sugar to favor a powerful industry.
Recent research shows that sugar levels in school meals are more than double what is recommended for the general public. Elementary school lunch menus contain 115 percent of the recommended daily calories from added sugars and fats, according to a November study by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. Middle school and high school lunch menus also are sugar- and fat-heavy, averaging between 59 and 74 percent of the recommended amounts.
About 1 in 5 school lunch menus includes dessert, the federal study said. The most common are cookies, cakes and brownies, some of which are counted as grain requirements. Other popular options are fruit with gelatin, ice cream and pudding.
The data from the School Nutrition Dietary Assessment is based on a 2010 survey of about 900 schools across the country and is considered the most comprehensive federal research on school meals.
For years, schools added sweets, such as graham crackers or cookies, to bump up calorie counts and meet minimum thresholds. Researchers say that practice is less common now that the USDA has implemented calorie limits. But some say sugary treats still are appealing to school administrators.
“Sugar-related products are the least expensive source of calories in the school meal program,” said Matthew Sharp, senior advocate for California Food Policy Advocates. He said many school officials oppose reducing sugar in meals because it would force them to buy more expensive products.
The USDA, which administers the national school lunch and breakfast programs, says newly created total calorie limits are designed to discourage extra-sugary and fatty foods. A USDA spokesman noted that as of June 30, about 70 percent of all schools have shown they’re in compliance with the new plan, which means students are eating healthier meals.
Industry representatives at the Sugar Association, a Washington lobbying group, said the USDA based its final rules on “many important and practical considerations.” For one, it said in a statement, “sugar makes many healthful foods palatable so children will eat them, which the science confirms helps increase intakes of many essential vitamins and minerals.”
“We continue to emphasize that the most important consideration of a healthful diet is the nutritional value of the foods and beverages consumed, not the sugar content,” the association said. “Portion control, monitoring caloric intake and being physically active are among the most important tools children can learn for long-term health."
But researchers say students’ sugar consumption places them at greater risk for obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Boys consume an average of about 360 calories – more than 22 teaspoons – of added sugars a day, according to a 2012 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Girls average about 280 calories – more than 17 teaspoons – daily.
Even if regulators eventually agree to restrict sugar in meals, schools would face the challenge of finding more healthful processed foods and the money to buy them. The federal government reimburses schools between 27 cents and $2.86 for each lunch served, depending on how much students can pay. Many school districts struggle to run their cafeterias with the current funding.
Schools have come to rely on revenue from vending machines, which Sharp says are one of the worst sources of sugary snacks and drinks on campus. He’s optimistic about the new standards released by the USDA that require items sold at school vending machines and snack bars to meet minimal nutrient requirements and limit sodium, sugar and fat.
But even as regulators tighten rules, other challenges arise.
“In L.A., there’s some neighborhoods where street vendors come around the school at the start of school and during breaks,” said Michael Goran, director of the Childhood Obesity Research Center at the University of Southern California. “The students can easily buy a boatload of sugary products.”
For years, researchers have debated how much sugar can be consumed in a healthy diet. USDA guidelines say calories from added sugars and solid fats should be limited to 5 to 15 percent of daily calories but provides no specific rule for sugars.
According to the CDC, American children consume about 16 percent of their daily calories from added sugars, which include white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, honey and other sweeteners.
Some academics who believe that Americans are eating too much sugar blame the lack of regulations on the political clout of the food and beverage industry.
“Sugar is the only nutrient with no dietary reference intake, and it’s because the food industry doesn’t want it,” said Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at UC San Francisco.
Lustig is the author of “Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease” and has been on a crusade against sugar. He argues that it’s addictive and toxic and that in the amounts consumed by Americans, sugar changes metabolism, raises blood pressure and damages the liver.
The Sugar Association argues that Lustig's research lacks scientific basis and that sugar consumption is correlated with, but not the proven cause of, health problems like Type 2 diabetes.
“We are not consuming enough of it (sugar) for it to have negative health impacts,” said Megan Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the lobbying group. “If the science supported setting an upper limit intake on sugar, they (federal regulators) would do it. There has been no major body of science to come out in support of it. That's why it hasn't happened yet.”
USDA officials say school meal regulations are based on independent scientific recommendations and input from all stakeholders. In its statement, the Sugar Association said it “did not lobby or meet with anyone at the U.S. Department of Agriculture with respect to the school lunch rule, nor was the Association involved in the crafting of that rule.”
Some say political pushback from food and beverage companies is part of the problem, but regulating sugar is complicated. It can be difficult to differentiate and enforce rules for naturally occurring sugars and added sweeteners, said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“These are extra calories that many children can’t afford,” Wootan said. “One-third of children are either overweight or obese. And it contributes to heart disease and diabetes. And in addition to that, oftentimes, the sugary food crowds out more healthy foods that kids need. So kids are overfed and undernourished.”
This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Pam Hogle and Nikki Frick.
The independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting is the country’s largest investigative reporting team. For more, visit www.cironline.org.