It turns out the nutritional content of school lunches isn’t the only thing we need to be concerned about. Independent research organization HowGood has found that most conventional school lunches contain harmful ingredients like azodicarbonamide, sodium stearoyl lactylate, and calcium propionate, a veritable alphabet soup of chemicals and additives that no parent wants in their kid's food... and the reasons behind their presence are even more disturbing.
What Are All These Additives Doing in School Lunches?
According to Arthur Gillett, co-founder and Head of Research at HowGood, "There's a really easy kind of shorthand for the presence of highly processed ingredients."
Essentially, he explains, it all boils down to companies wanting to cut corners to save money. When a company opts to use a cheaper ingredient – poor-quality bread flour, for instance – additives need to be used to ensure that the texture and flavor that would be achieved with better-quality ingredients is still present.
"People in America know to some extent what the texture of bread should be," he says. "And you use something to enhance the texture of the flour if you can't get to that texture using your process and using your ingredients."
When these texture-enhancers are added, more flavor enhancers need to be added to keep a food from tasting of chemicals, leading to a heavily-processed food filled with far more synthetics than would be necessary if whole foods had been used.
What's Really In Our Kids' Food?
HowGood's research shows that common cafeteria foods contain a variety of synthetic ingredients: chicken patties are filled with textured soy protein concentrate (a cheap, addictive filler replacing what should be chicken), while whole grain buns include sodium stearoyl lactylate (SSL) as an emulsifier, which is usually made with palm oil, a known cause of significant environmental damage in Malaysia and Indonesia, where it is produced.
Flavored milks, which a new federal rule deemed permissible in school lunchrooms (a rule that also eased regulations on adding whole grains and reducing sodium in school lunches developed thanks to efforts by First Lady Michelle Obama), were found not only to contain quite a bit of sugar but also carrageenan, a seaweed-derived thickener thought to cause intestinal distress. These milks also contained so-called “natural flavors,” which HowGood has dubbed “a vague term permitted by the FDA (that) allows companies to smuggle in all kinds of ingredients they’d rather not print on the label.”
"It was disappointing and a little bit disheartening," says Gillett, who notes that the HowGood team was not surprised with the results.
“It’s been a problem for a long time,” he says, noting that as consumer awareness of these issues grow, “It's become important to protect the people who are the least protected.”
How Do We Fix the Damage?
According to Gillett, the problem plaguing school lunches today is first and foremost a question of economics.
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“Being fed by the lowest bidder is never the choice a parent with the luxury of choice would make,” he says, and yet the reality is that in a lot of school districts – particularly those low on funds – these cheaper, lower-quality foods are often the ones being served.
The goal, then, becomes ensuring that all kids gain access to "at least baseline quality food," a goal that Gillet claims could become a reality if the supply chain is shortened and made more transparent. This, he says, can be achieved by bringing the preparation of these meal into the schools themselves.
“Not just reheating," Gillett notes. "But cooking from whole ingredients would have to happen in schools.”
Of course, this is a big change, but according to Gillett, the infrastructure for this solution already exists in most schools.
“School kitchens are actually pretty well equipped," he says. "The equipment is effectively under-utilized because of the food that they end up bringing in.”
That isn't to say that this is a solution that could be enacted overnight. Instead of reheating frozen, heavily processed food in school kitchens, staff would have to be trained to prepare meals from whole ingredients, and in some schools, Gillett notes, space would have to be expanded to accommodate the new procedure.
That said, these changes could very easily be integrated slowly, by preparing only the main from fresh ingredients, to start, or by demanding that a certain percentage of each meal be made with whole ingredients and slowly improving meals from there.
And while there are currently still halts on making new regulations at a federal level, with no indication as to when the current administration will lift them, Gillett notes that this is a change that can happen locally, at the state level.
“The state has leeway within the public school requirements to make a lot of different changes,” he notes. “From offering free lunch to all students, like in my home-state of New York, to sourcing organic and local ingredients when possible, school districts have taken strides in the right direction."
While he admits that of course state systems “can’t do anything and everything” to solve this problem, individual states committing to preparing whole food lunches on-site is a great place to start eradicating chemicals from our kids' food.
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