April 25, 2007 / 6:04 PM / in 12 years

Expert panel urges junk food ban in schools

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sugary drinks, fatty chips and gooey snack cakes should be banned from U.S. schools in the face of rising childhood obesity fueled by these junk foods, an expert panel said on Wednesday in a report requested by Congress.

Children eat lunch at an elementary school in a file photo. Sugary drinks, fatty chips and gooey snack cakes should be banned from U.S. schools in the face of rising childhood obesity fueled by these junk foods, an expert panel said on Wednesday in a report requested by Congress. REUTERS/Manuela Hartling

The Institute of Medicine panel proposed nutritional standards more restrictive than current government rules for foods and drinks sold outside regular meal programs in cafeterias, vending machines and school stores in elementary, middle and high schools.

They promote fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nonfat or low-fat dairy products and seek limits on calories, saturated fat, salt and sugar. The panel opposed caffeinated products due to possible harmful effects like headaches and moodiness.

The proposals would banish most potato and corn chips, candies, cheese curls, snack cakes such as Twinkies, “sports drinks” such as Gatorade, sugary sodas and iced teas and punches made with minimal fruit juice.

A 15-member panel headed by Dr. Virginia Stallings of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia crafted standards applying to items not part of federally sponsored meal programs, which already meet some nutrition guidelines. They do not restrict bagged lunches or snacks children bring to school.

“Because foods and beverages available on the school campus also make up a significant proportion of the daily calorie intake, they should contribute to a healthful diet. And school campuses should be an overall healthy eating environment,” Stallings told reporters.

The Institute of Medicine provides advice on health issues to U.S. policymakers. These recommendations came at the request of Congress.

The American Beverage Association trade group said industry already was changing the type of products available in schools to reduce calories and portion size, and had agreed to voluntary guidelines on items sold in schools.

‘RISING OBESITY’

Consumer advocates called the proposals vastly superior to existing Agriculture Department standards dating to the 1970s for foods sold alongside official school meals, and asked Congress to embrace them.

“They’re recommending very strongly that schools no longer sell junk food and sugary drinks, and that none of the foods sold undermine children’s diet and health. And that’s really important these days because of the rising obesity rates,” said Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest advocacy group.

Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat sponsoring a bill to toughen the existing government rules, said unenforceable voluntary guidelines by industry are not enough.

The panel proposed two categories of foods and beverages that can be sold in schools based on grade level.

One category should be allowed at all grade levels during school and after-school activities and should provide at least one serving of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or nonfat or low-fat dairy.

Examples include whole fruits, raisins, carrot sticks, whole-grain cereals, some multi-grain tortilla chips, some granola bars, some nonfat yogurt, plain water, skim and 1 percent fat milk, soy drinks and 100 percent fruit and vegetable juices.

A second category should be available only to high school students after regular school hours, including baked potato chips, whole-wheat crackers, graham crackers, pretzels, caffeine-free diet soda and seltzer water.

The panel took no position on foods with sugar substitutes, saying studies are lacking on effects of long-term consumption starting in childhood.

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