Why Smart Snacks Are So Sneaky

September 29, 2016

One of our favorite radio programs here at Healthy Schools Campaign is Inside School Food. This show is hosted by Laura Stanley, a food journalist, school food advocate and longtime friend of HSC. It’s a treat to follow along as she delves into the details of school food with a diverse group of interesting and engaging guests. The episodes are brief, entertaining and informative. You can listen live (Mondays at 11 a.m. EST) or download the episodes and listen later.

This fall, we’ll be sharing our thoughts and observations on a few episodes here on HSC’s blog. Today, we listen to the smart snacks episode: Smart Snacks and Sneaky Snacks.

As part of the USDA’s overall effort to improve the nutritional quality of food in schools, in 2014, it established nutrition standards for snack foods sold in schools. Companies have been very responsive, reformulating their products to meet these standards. For example, Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Treats are now made with whole grains, and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with less fat, less salt and more whole grains.

So what’s the problem?

A recent study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut found that these snacks confuse both students and parents and allow companies to market their unhealthy products to children. Middle school and high school students and parents participated in an online survey where they rated four different kinds of snacks:

  • Reformulated snacks: Snacks  that have been changed in some way—adding more whole grains, removing salt and sugar—so they meet nutritional guidelines. Often, they have very similar branding as original versions.
  • Original versions of snacks: Snacks as they’re sold in the grocery store.
  • Redesigned reformulated snacks: Reformulated snacks with branding that emphasizes the health benefits.
  • Healthy snacks: Snacks sold in grocery stores that meet nutritional guidelines to be offered in schools.

What they found confirmed what many healthy school food advocates feared: “This practice likely benefits the brands, but may not improve children’s overall diet and undermines schools’ ability to teach good nutrition,” the report said.

On Inside School Food, Laura Stanley welcomed Jennifer L. Harris, the lead author of the study, and Faith Boninger, who works for the Commercialization in Education Research Unit at the National Education Policy Center.

One of the main points Jennifer and Faith made was that the changes in the packaging between the healthier products and the regular products are so subtle that neither kids nor parents can tell the difference. And when the Rudd researchers redesigned the packaging to emphasize the healthier aspects, both students and parents thought the product would taste worse.

That also means students aren’t getting consistent messaging about what’s healthy and what’s not because the same packaging contains two very different products. A student might see a package of Cheetos at school and then pick it up at the grocery store because they think it’s healthy. And that is certainly not what we want.

Here in Chicago, Chicago Public Schools has said “no” to reformulated cereals and doesn’t serve reformulated snacks in its dining halls or vending machines.

CPS’ decision is a win for student health, as it means that Chicago students will receive consistent messaging about the types of foods that help fuel their learning and growth, and can foster healthy eating habits outside of school. CPS does allow healthy snacks that meet nutritional guidelines and are sold with the same nutritional content in stores like Skinny Pop Popcorn, Kashi Cereal Bars and Nutrigrain Cereal Bars. Here’s hoping schools around the country follow CPS’ lead.