Healthier versions of unhealthy snack foods in schools follow the letter of the USDA Smart Snacks program but not the spirit, according to a new study from the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
“Companies such as Cheetos, Doritos and Fruit by the Foot, saw this as an opportunity to reformulate popular snacks to sell them in schools,” said Jennifer Harris, lead author of the study and director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center.
The new Smart Snacks nutrition standards, issued in September 2015, called for snacks served in schools to include more whole grains and less fat and sodium. The new snacks released by the companies follow these guidelines, but they are packaged in bags similar to the originals.
“Kids think the healthier Smart Snacks they can buy in school are the same products that are sold in stores,” Harris told UConn Today. “It’s confusing because the packaging for these look-alike Smart Snacks looks so much like the less nutritious versions that kids see advertised on TV and in the stores.”
Parents are not convinced by the new snacks either, according to the study.
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“The sample (of participants) believed that schools who sold the look alike (reformulated) snacks were less concerned about the health and wellbeing of their students,” Harris told The Daily Campus, the independent daily student newspaper of Storrs, Connecticut. “Schools need credibility when it comes to health, and this undermines their message.”
Harris suggests that school districts create higher standards for their wellness policies to combat this issue, rather than rely on the USDA to solve the problem.
“The practice of selling look-alike Smart Snacks in schools likely benefits the brands, but may not improve children’s overall diet, and undermines schools’ ability to teach and model good nutrition,” Harris says.
The USDA Smart Snacks standards took five years to develop and introduce into schools.
Chips image via Shutterstock