Editorial Comment Publisher/Editor


Slow Progress On School Milk And Sodium Reduction

Dick Groves
Cheese Reporter Publishing Co., Inc.
dgroves@cheesereporter.com 608-316-3791

December 8, 2017


USDA’s interim final rule on school meal flexibilities, announced and reported on our front page last week, was good news for kids and also for the dairy industry, but it really represents pretty slow progress in the areas of school milk and sodium reduction.

It may be recalled that, back in January of 2012, USDA issued a final rule that, among other things, allowed flavoring only in fat-free milk. The new flexibility, to also allow flavoring in lowfat milk, is intended to encourage children’s consumption of fluid milk in child nutrition programs and to ease the administrative burden for program operators participating in multiple child nutrition programs.

In at least one way, this is a pretty minor change. As USDA pointed out, flavored, fat-free milk contains approximately 20 to 40 calories less per eight fluid ounces than flavored, lowfat milk. In the overall scheme of things, these extra calories aren’t really going to make much if any difference.

But in another way, this could be a pretty big change. As USDA noted, its final rule addresses concerns raised by child nutrition program operators and industry partners about declining milk consumption among program participants. Basically, kids are drinking less milk and losing out on the many nutritional benefits it offers.

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service collected data on milk consumption during school meals and found a decline in milk consumption during lunch among National School Lunch Program participants from school year 2004-05 to school year 2014-15 (from 75 percent to 66 percent).
Back before the 2012 final rule, flavored lowfat milk was the most frequently purchased milk by public school districts, and it was also among the most commonly offered varieties of milk in NSLP menus (63 percent). So offering the additional variety of flavored, lowfat milk across the child nutrition programs may increase student milk consumption, which will improve children’s nutrition and also perhaps help boost milk consumption.

Unfortunately, child nutrition program operators are still allowed to offer only fat-free or lowfat unflavored milk. If the kids want to drink whole milk or reduced-fat (2 percent) milk, well, they’ll have to do so outside of school.

There are several problems with this limit on the fat content of milk available in school, starting with the fact that lowfat and fat-free milk just aren’t all that flavorful, compared to the fuller-fat alternatives. If USDA really wants to boost milk consumption, it should offer varieties that will attract kids, not turn them off to milk.

Yes, we understand that there’s a childhood obesity crisis these days, but is whole milk really to blame? Funny how childhood obesity was practically non-existent back in the good old days when whole milk was included in school lunches and has increased as the fat content of school milk has decreased.

It’s also worth remembering that the science is changing when it comes to milkfat. As a recent “Science Brief” from the National Dairy Council explains, dairy fat is made up of more than 400 different types of fatty acids, making it the most complex fat naturally occurring in a food.

The fatty acid profile of dairy fat “may contribute to the observed associations between dairy foods and reduced chronic disease risk,” NDC noted. Further, while whole and reduced-fat dairy foods contain more calories than lowfat and fat-free versions, “a systematic review concluded that the observational evidence does not support an association between dairy fat or high-fat dairy foods and obesity or cardiometabolic risk...”

In short, keeping kids away from whole and reduced-fat milk not only is probably doing more harm than good when it comes to reducing obesity rates, it’s also preventing them from the potential benefits of dairy fat. It’s time for Congress and USDA to expand the types of milk being offered to kids in school.

Regarding sodium, in order to reduce the sodium content of school meals, the 2012 final rule on school nutrition standards established two intermediate sodium targets and a final target that were calculated based on sodium recommendations from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. To facilitate sodium reduction over a 10-year period, the regulations required compliance with Sodium Target 1 beginning July 1, 2014, Target 2 beginning July 1, 2017, and the Final Target beginning July 1, 2022.

There are at least a couple of problems with this sodium reduction effort.
First, it’s difficult to achieve. USDA said it understands that sodium reduction in school meals must be consistent with overall reductions in the food supply, but sodium reduction in the food supply has been slow because, well, because sodium is important in foods for a variety of reasons, from flavor to safety. Food companies aren’t going to reduce sodium if consumers won’t buy the foods, which in turn makes it difficult to force kids to consume these foods.

Second, as with milkfat, the science is unsettled when it comes to sodium reduction. Recent research has found that both low sodium intakes and high sodium intakes are associated with increased mortality. Or as a 2014 study in the American Journal of Hypertension put it, sodium reduction produces several physiological effects, “some of which may adversely influence health outcomes.” More research would be beneficial before forcing more reduced-sodium foods on kids, especially considering how lacking in flavor many of them are.

Yes, USDA’s interim final rule represented some progress, but when it comes to milk and sodium reduction, there’s still a ways to go before school kids receive what’s best for them, nutritionally and flavor-wise.

Cheese Reporter welcomes letters to the editor. Comments should be sent to: Dick Groves by Fax at (608) 246-8431; or e-mail your comments to
dgroves @cheesereporter.com.



Dick Groves

Dick Groves has been publisher/editor of Cheese Reporter since 1989. He has over 35 years experience covering the dairy industry. His weekly editorial is read and referenced throughout the world.
For more information, call 608-316-3791 dgroves@cheesereporter.com

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