Guest blogger: Sugar and school lunch

Hi I’m Christa O’Brien. I’m a full-time working mother of two young boys who is trying to get her family off processed foods while also getting her kids more intimately involved with the food that they eat. My blog Table of Promise is my attempt to document what we are eating and to investigate food and answer my questions of how and why it is made the way it is.

I have been following Mrs. Q’s blog for the last couple of months. I am very passionate about food, particularly whole foods and non processed foods, and I have two young boys so I am very interested in what my kids are eating. But my kids are young; they are just turning one and three this summer. So the School Lunch Debate hasn’t quite reached me on a personal level. But I see it looming on the horizon.

I read all of Mrs. Q’s postings and sometimes I comment, but last week something Ed Bruske said in his guest blog sent me on an Internet information hunt. He mentioned that on a trip to his daughter’s school he saw children eating breakfast. Sugary cereals, flavored milk, pop tarts, orange juice??!! Children eating 15 teaspoons of sugar with their breakfast??!! In case you are like me and need to look up the conversion of that number, that is more than a quarter of a cup of sugar. I found this shocking. When I attended public school we were served a hot lunch but breakfast was just starting to be served in Memphis City Public Schools and if I remember correctly you had to qualify economically for the service.
Sugar is a problem in my house. Everything seems to be sugary. Even though we strive for quality food, I know we are still eating too much sugar. Between waffles, fruit, honey on yogurt and treats for good behavior it seems like everything that actually gets ingested has been sweetened. My toddler’s behavior is definitely negatively affected by refined sugar. So I cannot imagine what a group of 500-600 school kids must be like after ingesting a quarter of a cup of sugar each with little or no fiber to offset it’s absorption. Ed’s words really opened my eyes to what it would be like to hand my child over to the public school system in two short years.
But how could this be possible? How could so much sugar get into the hands of little people when the conventional wisdom is that sugar needs to be eaten in moderation? I took to the internet and uncovered many facets to the story.
Table sugar as we know it comes from sugar cane and sugar beets. The domestic supply of refined sugar is about 50-50 cane and beets. About 10% of the entire domestic sugar supply comes from the state of Florida alone.  In 1934 the US government was eager to shore up agriculture prices as a result of the depression. They created the country’s first U.S. Sugar policy. This policy is still in place today.  The policy sets a price floor for sugar that is grown and sold domestically. Currently the floor price is about three times higher than the world market price. The policy also sets limits on imported sugar by country of origin. Many sugar cane and sugar beet farms in the US are controlled directly by the refiners and so high prices are a huge profit booster for these companies. The price floor encourages overproduction which is of course detrimental for the soil but also world agriculture prices. So much extra sugar depresses world prices and sugar producers in other countries struggle to break even after the excess US sugar is dumped abroad.
‘But’, you ask, ‘if sugar is so expensive in this country, Then wouldn’t that make sugary foods like candy and soda more expensive thus regulating supply and demand?’ Yes, in fact it did for a number of years (and still does for many various industries that rely on crystallized sugar). Now enter high-fructose corn syrup.
The way the government regulates prices on sugar is altogether different than how it regulates other commodities like corn and soybeans and cotton. With corn for example, the government subsidizes farmers directly. This also encourages overproduction, but because no price floor is set, the more corn there is the lower the price. This situation makes corn very plentiful and very inexpensive. The government has been subsidizing farmers directly since the New Deal Era, but as a result of the recession of the mid-1970s food prices soared and so did subsidies. The government did this specifically to lower the price of food. And boy did it work. Americans currently spend less than 10% of their annual income on food. That is less than virtually all industrialized nations.
In relation to the sugar issue, there was a lot of cheap corn lying around that needed to be consumed. The problem was that regular old corn syrup isn’t a good sugar substitute because it doesn’t taste as sweet as table sugar to the human tongue. But in 1957 scientists further refined regular corn syrup (almost entirely glucose) and broke the syrup down into essentially liquid fructose. The original corn syrup was then mixed with the liquid fructose and boom, high-fructose corn syrup. HFCS was amazing because it was easily transportable and worked perfectly in all wet applications like soda and batter based baked goods.
Now, every strong commodity needs a good lobby in Washington, right? In 1943 the Sugar Association was formed, as they say on their website, to promote “…[the] educating [of] health professionals, media, governmental officials and the public about sugar’s goodness”. They happen to be a very strong lobby. Some recent activities of the Sugar Association: in 2003 the WHO was set to unveil a new set of dietary guidelines. One of the recommendations was that not more than 10% of a person’s daily caloric intake should come from sugar. The Sugar lobby was furious. They contacted WHO directly saying that they had a report from the Institute of Medicine stating that it was perfectly safe to have sugar comprise 25% of a person’s daily calories. Furthermore, the Sugar lobby contacted then US Health Secretary  Tommy Thompson. They recommended to Thompson that all further US funding of WHO be dependent upon WHO’s agreement that they base their recommendations on science.  And through these actions, WHO was pressured into silence on the sugar matter. They changed the wording on their recommendations about sugar to reference a numbers of time per day that sugar could be eaten but no amounts are mentioned. Even Harvey Fineberg, the then president at the IOM who oversaw the study the Sugar Association was referencing, contacted US Health Secretary Tommy Thompson to say that his institute’s report was being misinterpreted.
This omission of sugar in the national food conversation is directly related to School Lunch. The Sugar Association has successfully lobbied the USDA to remove any mention of added sugars in their food pyramid and other nutritional literature. I was surprised to see this as truth when I went to Remember when you were in grade school learning about the food pyramid and there was a tiny triangle at the top that said ‘use added fats, oils and sweets sparingly’? That tiny sliver is no longer there. Today’s food pyramid talks only about fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and meat. But with so many foods like ‘drinkable fruit’ that likely has added sugar, a lot of pertinent information is getting lost in the shuffle. Even the new Child Nutrition Act that is now working its way through the halls of Washington mentions no regulation of sugar.
Mrs. Q has talked a lot about funny grains popping into a meal, like an extra piece of bread here or a cookie there. Schools are required to adhere to the food pyramid serving requirements when planning school lunches. But with sugar being virtually removed from the governmental dialogue on food suddenly a school could technically view a cookie in the same way they would a serving of rice. Any normal thinking person would see there is a problem in the way the national guidelines are being executed.
Bruske stated in an recent piece for Grist Magazine that some schools who had analyzed their breakfast program found that over 44 percent of the total calories came from sugar. The USDA nutrition guidelines state that only about 10% of one’s daily calories are discretionary, meaning only 10% can come from relative non-nutritive sources like solid fats and sugar. The rest need to come from sources that are providing your body with nutrients, protein, vitamins and minerals.  So many people today do not truly understand that calories and nutrient quality do not necessarily go hand in hand. It is not enough to feed our children the requisite number of calories. We must provide them with quality food that has nutrients that will allow their bodies and brains to develop optimally. With the mindset that all foods are equal among their classification (fruit, vegetable, grain, etc) you will forever get a combination of cheap substandard foods.
The truth is, not all foods are created equal. I must give credit to the folks like Ed Bruske, Ann Cooper, Alice Waters, Jaime Oliver and the like who are teaching those who need it about how to cook for our children. I believe that many people fervently want the kind of school lunch reform that will put fresh foods on the plates of our children. But clearly regulation alone hasn’t worked because food service companies and underfunded school systems have continued to find ways to under serve children’s needs even in the face of regulation. My hat is off to those who are rolling up their sleeves and getting to work to teach us how to accomplish this monumental task.
One last positive note: I was pleased to read on Ed Bruske’s blog last week that the DC school system has banned flavored milks beginning with the 2010-11 school year! Congratulations to all who worked hard to make it happen!
Bruske, Ed. SWEET AND LOW The Sweetener lobby: still a power house in the school lunch debate. Grist: A Beacon in the Smog. 19 Apr 2010.
Nestle, Marion. Sugary school meals hit lobbyists sweet spot. 2 May, 2010.
Virata, Gillian. The Effects of the U.S. Sugar Policy. 9 June, 2010.
Sugar sweet by nature.  9 June, 2010.
Sugar Association. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia 9 June,2010.
Sugar and Sweeteners. USDA Economic Research Service. 9 June 2010
Agricultural Subsidy. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 9 June 2010
High-fructose corn syrup. Wikipedia-The Free Encyclopedia. 11 June 2010
Big Sugar. The Washington Post. 16 April 2005
Boseley, Sarah. Sugar Industry threatens to scupper WHO. The Guardian. 21 Apr 2003
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24 thoughts on “Guest blogger: Sugar and school lunch

  1. Thanks for a rare examination of the "hidden incentives" elephant in the room. I strongly urge anyone interested in better health to call for an end to all food subsidies, which cause artificial distortions in price information and hide the true cost of what we eat. I'd also add that for many people in developed countries these days with a broken metabolism, refined carbohydrate of any kind and even "heart healthy whole grains" can cause enormous rises in blood sugar, as well as triglycerides and LDL. Agricultural lobbyists will fight to the death to defend their industry being propped up in this manner, but the science they relied on for the last few decades to demonize natural fats and push grain consumption to ever greater heights is being increasingly debunked.

  2. Just tried to click on the pyramid link. It didn't work. It is 🙂

  3. Thanks for the post. Sugar and HFCS is in everything. Really. My husband is allergic to refined sugar and HFCS, so we label-read and cook mostly at home. Thankfully, organic sugar doesn't bother him.

  4. This was a fascinating article. The story behind our food needs to be told more often – why corn is everywhere, why sugar isn't mentioned in the food pyramid, why fast food is cheaper than the farmers market.

    The science debate is interesting. It seems like every study is sponsored by someone with an agenda, or is being "spun" by people with an agenda. How are people to know which to trust? And I think it's also telling that the WHO chose to not give a number at all, rather than put a range like 10-25%. It seems like that would be enough to still affect those who are at 44%.

    Great post. Lots to think about as I plan our lunch and dinner for today.

  5. Wow! Reading this post actually made me furious! I cant believe something referred to as the 'Sugar Association' has that much pull! There must be something that can be done about this! I remember that sliver on the food pyramid when I was in school, and I'm not even that old. I cant believe it was removed and no mention of sugar is allowed when discussing the health of our children. This is an absolute embarassement to our countries food guidlines. Great Post!

  6. This last semester, I did both a research paper for English and a presentation for Chemistry class on HFCS, and the differences from Sucrose (table sugar). The main difference? HFCS and Sucrose are both composed of glucose and fructose. However, in HFCS, the fructose and glucose are "free floating", or unbonded. In Sucrose, the two elements are bonded together.

    This means, the body needs to take an extra step using enzymes to un-bond the sugars in order to use them; otherwise they pass through the system unused. And this also means that the body gets to regulate HOW MUCH sugar it breaks apart to use. It's one of our regulatory systems, so that when we ingest a quarter cup of table sugar (beet, cane) in 15 minutes, it doesn't get instantly dumped into our bloodstream the way HFCS and plain old fructose does.

    This is why there is a correlation between the introduction of HFCS into our food supply and the rise in childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other weight- and sugar-related health issues.

    –A 40-something mom heading back to school

  7. Fascinating article, very well written. Very informative! Those statistics are unbelievable! I think we're going to create and post a food pyramid in our house that includes that tiny sliver at the top. I never knew it was removed!

  8. I forgot the name and blog of the guest blogger so please feel free to check it out! Whoops, I don't know how it got through quality control without an author's name… Urg

  9. Shocking! Shocking…but not surprising!

    So far I have only tackled the school lunches at my school but have received complaints and inquiries from both teachers and parents to please start highlighting the breakfasts and how 'nutrition-less' they are! Come the start of the school year, something has to be done about breakfast too.

    Great article, well researched!

  10. Great post. People just need to educate themselves like you have done. That is probably the biggest problem, people not educating themselves. There is so much good info out their like your blog, medical journals, studies, etc. But the people reading them are not the ones with the problems, it is the other 99% of society. What do you do if you have a great message, but no one wants to hear it or wants to read it. You just keep pushing your message. Thank you for the info. Please check out my site, I am working for the kids and the parents.


  11. IMO, this is one of the most serious issues facing school lunches right now. The problem is, there is a requirement for carbohydrates that must be met – but no guidelines of what those carbs must be: the nutritional label includes total carbohydrates, fiber, sugar and sugar alcohols – any of these meet the requirement. Because of this loophole, schools could offer a meal where every single carb is sugar, still say lunches are "healthy," and "meet the USDA Guidelines."

    When I brought up my concerns about sugar at a Wellness Council meeting, the school nutritionist rolled her eyes and said "Mrs. Hays likes to split up her carbs." No one else was aware that sugar could be used in this way. One of our lunches contains 39 grams of sugar (almost ten teaspoons, not counting the flavored milk many kids get, which would add another two)

    Another issue is that added sugars are not labeled as such – so it's difficult for a parent to know which sugars occur naturally (yogurt has a fair amount of lactose, which shows up as sugar, in addition to the HFCS that is often added – and the sugars in carrots and fruit also show up in the same spot) Unfortunately, the new guidelines are bypassing this issue – so, WRITE YOUR LEGISLATORS and ask that added sweeteners be required to be noted on nutrition labels, and that a limit be placed on sugars in school lunches (noting that many processed "natural" foods "cheat" by adding sweeteners that don't look like sugar, e.g. concentrated fruit juice.)

  12. Fantastic post!!
    I'd read most of it before, but I thank you for putting it all together for me.

    the big thing is that it is going to take a lot to tip the big guys in power. Corn, Sugar, Big business and Big Government.

  13. Yet again farming policies encourage overproduction to the detriment of both humans and the environment. At least sugar is less refined than HFCS. Perhaps I'm a bit silly in this, but I generally prefer products that I could make myself, given the proper plants. Factory produced food is fascinating, but fundamentally scary.

  14. Over the last few years, I have had read that eating sugar is not related to hyperactivity in children – most recently in one of the parenting magazines I read. So I was very surprised you mentioned the connection to your child's behavior. Everything else you stated seems based in scientific fact. I know there have been studies done that refute the relationship between sugar and behavior. (By the way, I am not in any way trying to argue that excessive sugar is not a problem. You just can't blame kids' behavior on it)

  15. Some 20 years ago I read somewhere that table sugar's chemical composition is basically the same molecular structure as cocaine (or was it heroine). Couldn't believe it. I certainly can tell the difference when my 13 y.o. has a piece of candy as opposed to a piece of fruit. Both have sugar, but they are different.

    Thanks for a great post. I homeschool my 13 y.o. and he takes nutrition next year. Will include my own version of the food pyramid on it.

    Vikki at

  16. Poor kids. Unless they attend schools that serve awesome lunches like the one described in the June 28 guest blog "School Meals That Rock," kids who eat school lunches really don't have much of a chance at getting a decent mid-day meal (and breakfast in many cases). What I'd like to know is if, despite the challenges all schools face, there are some that manage to serve lunches like the one in that blog, why can't they ALL do it?

  17. That's shocking information about the amount of sugar in school lunches.


  18. Sugar does not have "basically the same chemical structure" as heroine OR cocaine. While I do believe that too much sugar in our diets, as a chemist I have two problems with that statement.

    1) You do not provide any back up of this information and you did not look it up after you "heard" it somewhere. When we through "information" like this around it takes away from the real debate and important information that we all need to have.

    2) Small differentiations in chemical structure can create large differences in how molecules interact in our bodies so even if they are similar you can not automatically make the assumption that they will produce similar effects in our bodies. (Although sometimes it is true that similar structures behave similarly…as medications are often synthetically produced analogues of naturally occurring materials that have been known to produce healing effects.)

  19. @ Alyse, thanks for correcting me on the website. The USDA has just revisited the nutrition guidelines but not made any significant changes, so I believe is still in use.

    I have also read articles and watched TV news coverage about the scientific studies not showing a link between sugar and behavior. I am not a scientist, and prehaps it is not an elevated blood sugar that causes my son's outbursts of behavior. Perhaps his behavior is caused by an upset stomach. He definitely eats less real food when he has too much sugar. Either way, our house is calmer and happier when there is less sugar around.

    And I love to read that there are kids out there who are taking nutrition classes in school! I wish all kids had access to nutrition information! Now if only we could settle on who would write the cirriculum….

  20. Just wanting to recommend this book: "Suicide by Sugar : A Startling Look at Our #1 National Addiction" By Appleton, Nancy (2009)

    And thanks for such an interesting post!

  21. Thank you for making me want to cry. 😉 I have a 4-year-old Type 1 diabetic and I've been fearing sending him to kindergarten next year precisely because I wasn't sure how the carb content would be handled. It just reminds me before the end of the 2011 school year, I have to find out a lot about our school's lunches.

  22. Some of those sugar and behavior studies are misleading. Everyone knows that a lot of sugar causes a sugar high and then a sugar crash. Several of the studies were designed to see if sugar had permanent effects. More along the lines of does eating a sugary lunch cause ADD forever. Seems to be a silly set up to me. Generally speaking things in your diet do affect your health and your behavior, and once you stop eating them the effects generally subside (other than some things that cause more permanent damage to the liver etc.)

  23. I am sure this has been recommended somewhere on this site, but Michael Pollen's "The Omnivores Dilemma"

    goes in to great detail of the legislature and manufacturing of HFCS. One interesting point he makes is that the human appetite is a limited quantity. We as humans can only eat so much. Therefore, to sell HFCS, they 1. Increase the number of things they put it in. 2. Sell bigger portions ( think of the Big Gulp ) in the hopes of creating and sustaining the addiction humans have to sugar. It is very insidious. The book is very enlightening on food production as a whole, and one I highly recommend.

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