'Pizza vegetable' controversy is hot potato

A law blocking new regulations of tomato paste, spuds and salt in school meals causes a stir.

If you've been following the headlines recently, you could be forgiven for thinking that pizza is now considered a vegetable in the cafeterias of American schools.

The latest food fight in Washington, D.C., did indeed feature this kid-food staple, especially a key ingredient — tomato paste. One point of contention was whether the amount of sauce contained in a pizza slice was enough to qualify as a "serving" of vegetables.

But the news was really about a larger issue: the U.S. Department of Agriculture's efforts to improve the nutritional quality of federally funded school lunches. The USDA is tasked with making sure that the dietary guidelines for Americans, updated every five years, apply to the roughly $11-billion school lunch program, which provides free or low-cost meals to more than 31 million students. The brouhaha was set off by certain members of Congress who inserted language into the annual agriculture appropriations bill that undercut the agency's ability to remake school lunches.

Here's a closer look at the pizza controversy.

What's the back story?

The current nutrition standards for school lunches are based on federal dietary guidelines from 1989. After the guidelines were updated in 2005, the USDA asked the Institute of Medicine to evaluate how the school lunch program could be brought in line with them. The institute's report came out in 2009, and the USDA used it to develop a plan that includes cutting back on ingredients like salt and potatoes, reducing saturated fats and total calories, and boosting fresh fruits and vegetables. The goal was to improve nutrition and help stem the tide of childhood obesity.

The USDA published its proposed recommendations in the Federal Register in January, and invited members of the public to comment on them.

What problems were they trying to fix?

One concern was that schoolchildren weren't getting enough fruits and vegetables in their lunches and that the variety was too limited.

USDA officials proposed separating fruits and vegetables into separate categories to increase the total amount and the variety offered to kids. Further, they specified that once a week, lunches offer at least one half-cup serving of each of the following items: dark green vegetables (such as spinach or broccoli), orange vegetables (carrots, squash), legumes (chickpeas, kidney beans), starchy vegetables (white potatoes, corn ) and "other" vegetables, including tomatoes. (The USDA's definition of a "vegetable" is in line with how people use and think of them rather than strictly botanically accurate.)

Another issue the USDA addressed was the paucity of whole grains served in school cafeterias. The feds want to see at least half of the grain servings be whole grain; in two years, all grain servings should be "whole-grain rich," they said.

For sodium levels, the USDA called for a gradual reduction over 10 years; in elementary school lunches, for instance, the average level would fall from 1,377 milligrams per week now to a maximum of 640 mg per week in 2021. For saturated fat, the USDA recommends it contribute less than 10% of total calories.

And tomato paste?

Under current regulations, an eighth of a cup of tomato paste is considered the nutritional equivalent of a half-cup serving of vegetables, since that's how much tomato it takes to make it. But the USDA noted in its proposal that other pastes and purees don't get the same treatment — they get credit only for the "actual volume as served."

That "loophole" is what makes it possible for a slice of pizza to count as a serving of vegetables, says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

The new rules would have brought tomato paste in line with other foods. But Congress adjusted the agricultural appropriations bill to preserve the paste's special treatment. President Obama signed the bill this month.

Critics say legislators acted at the behest of giant food companies looking for an inexpensive way to deliver meals that count as having a serving of vegetables.

But even the USDA acknowledges that one-eighth of a cup of paste contains half a cup's worth of tomato solids. And that one-eighth cup is a nutritional match for some half-cup servings of other produce items. An eighth cup of tomato paste has more vitamins A and C than a half cup of canned green beans, as well as similar calcium levels and about half the iron and fiber — all for a similar calorie count. The paste has more calcium and iron, but less vitamin C and fiber, than a half cup of applesauce, at less than half as many calories.

Was that the only source of controversy?

No. On the advice of the Institute of Medicine, the USDA also took on starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, corn and peas, mainly to encourage more variety.

The idea was that by limiting servings of white potatoes — whether baked, mashed, French-fried, hash-browned or tater-totted — as well as corn, lima beans and green peas, students would be encouraged to try a wider array of vegetables, including those in the dark green and orange groups that contain essential nutrients such as folate and beta carotene.

The USDA's own evaluation of school lunches has found that when faced with a choice of vegetables, kids will choose a starchy vegetable 75% of the time, Wootan says. Most often this means French fries, but other white potato forms also are popular.

Who was against the USDA's proposed changes?

Some players in the food industry, including the American Frozen Food Institute, a trade group based in McLean, Va., and Schwan's Food Service Inc., a Marshall, Minn.-based company that supplies frozen pizzas to 75% of U.S. schools.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), from Schwan's home state, wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack extolling the nutritional value of tomato paste. And Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) from big potato-producing states joined with the National Potato Council to fight the limits on starchy vegetables.

In addition to preserving the tomato paste loophole, the bill Obama signed prevents the USDA from limiting servings of starchy vegetables. It also slows the sodium reduction and challenges the USDA to come up with a more precise definition of the term "whole grain" before implementing rules about their use.

What happens now?

The agriculture appropriation bill, signed by the president, is now law, so the current amendments on tomato paste and potato servings are in effect for another year. In the meantime, many schools are moving forward with efforts to improve the lunches they serve.

The Institute of Medicine report included advice to help school districts implement healthful menu changes, says Karen Cullen, a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who served on the committee that wrote the report. But for such changes to have lasting impact, she says, districts must work with schools, students' families and the community players, such as grocery stores.

"If children are being introduced to new foods at school, then schools might offer taste-testing for students and recipes for parents," she suggests. "I've heard anecdotally that parents end up asking for those vegetables their kids have mentioned liking."

health@latimes.com

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