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New USDA Rules Leave School Snacks Loaded with Sugar and Aspartame

Health + Wellness
New USDA Rules Leave School Snacks Loaded with Sugar and Aspartame

Center for Food Safety

By Michele Simon

In April, I submitted comments to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on behalf of Center for Food Safety regarding proposed nutrition guidelines for “competitive foods” sold in schools. These are foods sold outside the school program and consist mainly of junk food and soda. Our position was that schools should do away with these foods altogether and focus on improved school meals.

While some groups celebrated when the interim final rule was released in June, numerous questions remain. USDA is calling the rule “Smart Snacks in School.” You can submit comments to USDA until Oct. 28; the rule goes into effect for the 2014 school year.

I asked registered dietitian Andy Bellatti to take a closer look at the new nutrition guidelines for potential weaknesses. 

Simon: What about the food guidelines are most troubling to you?

Bellatti: While in general, the food guidelines are not bad and certainly an improvement, the sugar limits are especially lax. USDA is allowing foods with less than 35 percent sugar by weight, which is quite a lot. This means, for example, a product like Yo! Crunch yogurt with M&Ms topping “passes.”

Simon: I see that the dairy industry lobbied for USDA to measure the sugar standard by weight instead of by calories. Why is that significant?

Bellatti: In terms of using “by calories” or “by weight,” there is no universally better choice. Depending on the caloric and sugar content of a product, either one could be the stricter choice. The issue here is that 35 percent is way too high of a limit. I would have preferred 10 percent. In the rule, USDA noted the following:

Many commenters stated that this alternative [using 35 percent of sugar by weight, rather than 35 percent of sugar by calories] would allow greater flexibility and would permit more products that are favorites among students, such as low-fat ice cream, sweetened frozen fruit and yogurt parfaits.

Therefore, it certainly seems like “percent of sugar by weight” (rather than by calories) was chosen in order to provide more allowances for sweetened dairy products.

In fact, had USDA used less than 35 percent of calories standard, these candy yogurts would not have passed. By calories, 80 calories from sugar, based on 140 calories equals 57 percent of calories come from sugar. Even without the naturally occurring sugar, you get to more than 35 percent. It seems pretty clear that USDA essentially went with percent of sugar by weight to allow sweetened dairy products an easy in.

Simon: It seems the dairy industry is quite happy with the rule. What else bothers you about the role of dairy products?

Bellatti: In order to qualify as a “smart snack,” a food must have a fruit, vegetable, whole grain, dairy product or “protein” as its first ingredient. This is based on federal dietary guidelines, which is silly because “protein” is not a food group and it gives dairy another easy pass. Also, this caught my eye in the rule:

One commenter suggested specifying that ‘‘dairy products’’ include non-standard products such as cultured dairy snacks and frozen dairy desserts. In drafting the proposed rule, the Department did not intend to exclude non-standard dairy products such as those mentioned by the commenter.

Translation: Cultured snacks” equal yogurt, and “frozen dairy desserts” equal ice cream. Both of these are essentially sugar vessels. I would have preferred to see cheese and unflavored milk as the only allowed dairy products as a way to cut back on sugary foods.

USDA did acknowledge the problem of high-sugar dairy products:

Ingredient lists reveal that many popular drinkable yogurts have significant levels of added sugars instead of sugars conveyed naturally from fruit or dairy. USDA will gather additional information as competitive food standards are implemented and may address standards for drinkable yogurt in a future rulemaking.

That doesn't sound too promising, though; I would have preferred they not allow drinkable yogurts until they come up with a guideline, especially since unlike yogurt, which is considered food and therefore must be  less than 35 percent of sugar by weight, lax as that is, drinkable yogurt is a beverage and therefore has no sugar limits.

Simon: There are no sugar limits on dairy beverages?

Bellatti: No, USDA has set no sugar limits for any beverages, including fluid milk); instead there are limits on portions sizes and flavored milk is only allowed in non-fat form. USDA said:

We are not supportive of requiring a calorie or sugar limit for flavored milk at this time. We will continue to monitor this issue as the competitive food standards are being implemented to determine if a future calorie cap and/ or sugar limit for flavored milk is warranted.

I find it very problematic that these guidelines do not set calorie or sugar limits for flavored milk. I think it is imperative to establish sugar limits or, even better, only allow unflavored/unsweetened milks; dairy or otherwise.

The absence of sugar guidelines for flavored milk means, that, in theory, an eight ounce serving of chocolate milk that contains five teaspoons of added sugar (20 grams) can be sold. Keep in mind that the American Heart Association recommends that children ages four to eight should consume no more than three teaspoons of added sugar a day. Most eight ounce servings of chocolate milk contain anywhere from two to four teaspoons of added sugar, depending on manufacturer formulations.

Simon: What about the beverage rule bothers you more generally?

Bellatti: The rules seems overly concerned with calories, while allowing diet sodas, diet iced teas and diet juice drinks, without a care about the potential hazards of artificial sweeteners or dyes, or any other artificial ingredients for that matter. Also, USDA set no guidelines on caffeine, so diet “energy drinks” are allowed.

Simon: Anything else you find troubling?

Bellatti: For the food guidelines, USDA has adopted FDA’s rule to allow foods with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving to be “rounded down” to zero grams. This bothers me, as it should not be used as a guideline; rather, the presence of partially hydrogenated oils in a product should automatically disqualify it from being sold in schools.

Are these guidelines better? In some ways, yes. However, they still fall prey to nutritionism by utilizing numbers on the nutrition facts label rather than ingredient quality. They also propagate the troubling idea that as long as a food product offers calcium, it shouldn't have any problem finding its way into schools, no matter how sugary or processed.

Visit EcoWatch’s HEALTH pages for more related news on this topic.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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