Child Nutrition Reauthorization: My 6-cents on Child Nutrition

by Ashley Colpaart, RD LD

When I was in middle school, I used to go through the snack line everyday for lunch and get an order of soggy fries and a styrofoam cup filled with hot, cheese product. The trick was to eat it quickly to prevent coagulation.  My meal was washed down with a 20 ounce soda, procured from school-approved vending machines that, due to regulation, were only turned on during each 20 minute lunch period.

High school didn’t offer a much more nourishing experience. Socializing was always more of a priority than eating. As a young girl, noticeably aware of her body, I made attempts to eat from the salad bar line, only to find myself distracted by the ice cream, cookies, and pizza line, which was always considerably a faster option.

With these woeful lunches solidified in my memory, I anticipate the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) bill as a grand opportunity to make much needed changes to the lunchroom environment. As the appropriations bill for school nutrition programs, the CNR will define eligibility criteria for enrollment and reimbursement levels for meals. The bill also will set nutrition standards affecting the diets of millions of school children across the nation. While I was hoping for substantive change, the bill’s pre-arrival has me singing the Talking Head’s… “same as it ever was.”

On Wednesday, March 24, the Senate Agriculture Committee approved the CNR, or Healthy Hunger-Free Kids’ Act of 2010 (HHFKA), by unanimous consent. According to Chairwoman of the Senate Ag Committee, Blanche Lincoln (D-AR)’s website, her version of the bill is a “bipartisan, fiscally responsible bill making the largest investment in federal child nutrition programs to date.”

While the HHFKA does provide increased funding, the 4.5 billion allocated falls far short of Obama’s original 10 billion dollar proposal. To put these numbers in perspective, this “largest investment” amounts to a mere 6 cent increase per meal.  As the famed Renegade Lunch Lady, Chef Anne Cooper puts it, 6 cents is “not even what it costs me to put a fresh apple on each lunch tray.”

The HHFKA also includes a provision to revise the national standards that will apply to food sold on campus including vending and a la carte fare. However, the language for these National School Nutrition Standards (NSNS) are said to be a compromise among the food and beverage industries and public health and education groups on standards for foods sold in schools.

While creating national nutrition standards is noble, we’ve been down this road before. The NSNS language gives authority to the Secretary of Agriculture to establish “science-based nutrition standards” consistent with the soon to be updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This year the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that 6 of the 13 members of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Committee, including the chair, received research support or consulting fees from food or drug companies with vested interests in the guidelines.

The NSNS standards are supported by the food industry because they level the playing field and secure their markets. As a representative for Mars Chocolate, US says,  “Mars supports a new national school nutrition standard that will make it easier for schools and food manufacturers to work together to ensure children make smart decisions about the foods they consume.” But are the standards enough to really change our children’s relationship with food?

Industry has no problem reformulating processed foods. Flavored milk and sports drinks are touted as healthful alternatives to soda, yet both are comparable in their sugar content. In effect, redefining standards keeps industry in control of what kids are eating.

Real change in the CNR is possible by fully funding the existing provisions to establish school gardens and help cafeterias source locally through farm-to-school programs. Such action would have the combined benefits of improving nutrition, acquainting children with a greater variety of food, and educating children on how food is grown. Real change is possible through adequately training school service workers in cooking simple, raw ingredients and helping to modernize school lunch facilities. To accomplish this, the Senate will now have to put its money where kid’s mouths are. A fully funded CNR is crucial to changing the school food environment.

April Fools? Or Has the World Gone Mad?

by Jessica Hochstadt

As spring begins, the flowers bloom, baby birds learn to fly, and the sounds of laughter permeate the air. The latter, of course, is due to April Fools’ Day, dedicated entirely to practical jokes. As a science, the field of nutrition leaves very little space for said pranks (unless you count labeling the sugar container as salt). However, recent activity within the field raises the question we all ask when a professor announces a pop quiz: Is this a joke? The following is a short list of nutrition-related issues that could all pass for an April Fools’ Day hoax but are, unfortunately, real.

1) FDA Increases Serving Size: On February 5th 2010, the New York Times reported that the FDA is attempting to change the standard serving sizes that are currently on all packaged foods (NY Times article).  Their justification for this is that the serving sizes “puzzle even the experts”. In particular, the serving sizes do not represent the amount of food that the average person eats in one sitting. For example, one serving (150 kcal) of Kellogg’s® Frosted Flakes® is 3/4 of a cup. However, most people eat at least 2 cups in one sitting.

Why is the serving size set so small? When serving sizes were first introduced in the 1990s, the FDA set them to represent the amount of food that American’s typically ate in one sitting. This information reflects eating habits from the 1970s and 1980s. If you’ve seen any of the CDC’s obesity maps (CDC maps) of the United States between 1980 and today, you’ll know that eating habits have changed slightly since the 1970s.

But does that mean that serving sizes have to change? Or that our eating habits should? If the serving size begins to reflect what Americans currently eat, it is likely that people will think that the amount in a new serving is appropriate and might even justify eating more. Obese will become the new overweight. Overweight will become the new healthy. And heart attacks will become the new rite of passage!

2) High Fructose Corn Syrup Ads: High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a cheap sugar substitute that is comprised mostly of fructose and is used in the making of most processed foods (like Hostess’ Ho-Hos® and Ding-Dongs®, and sodas).  In recent years, our understanding of HFCS and its effects on the human body has waxed and waned from “poisonous toxin” to “just like sucrose”.

One issue that cannot be debated is the effect that HFCS has on the environment. Corn is the number one crop being grown in the United States, and one of its primary uses is HFCS. Because the crop is not rotated when it is grown, the soil’s nutrients are depleted and require more pesticides and fertilizers. Fertilizer runoff starves the soil of oxygen, thus rendering it useless. The result—a non-harvestable wasteland.

However, the Corn Refiners Association ignores these effects and continues to promote its products in a series of print and televised ads ( The common theme surrounding these ads is that people think HFCS is bad for you, but in reality, it is “made from corn, natural, similar to sugar, and fine in moderation”. Upon hearing this, the newly informed party then happily devours the HFCS-laden food (popsicle, sugary drink or cereal). None of the actors ever mentions what the production of HFCS is doing to the environment.

How can a big company promote a product that is bad for the environment? Surely, this must be a first! (Review the history of Monsanto… and don’t call me Shirley.)

3)  This Is Why You’re Fat: In browsing through a local Barnes and Noble, I came across a book whose cover depicted a hamburger patty nestled between cinnamon buns. The book, This Is Why You’re Fat (click for the online version), is a celebration of the noxious foods that people eat. The foods range from fried Mars® bars to bacon chocolate chip cookies. Some of the more intricate of the recipes include the “flatline burger” (a deep fried double bacon cheeseburger with peanut butter, garnished with two sides of chipotle mayo) and the “cowboy café barnyard” (two half-pound beef patties, barbequed pulled pork, bacon, two slices of cheddar cheese, and a fried egg between a hamburger bun).

I will not bore you with what we know about the health effects of eating these foods. Instead, I will say this: as long as the cowboy café barnyard stays on the menu… I’ll always have a job. So, pig out, piggies! (And then call me. I’d like to help you.)

4) Quick Trim®: As the winter months come to an end and the sun begins to shine, we begin the process of shedding our winter weight. For many, this is not an easy task. It requires calorie restriction, physical activity, and careful attention to calories consumed versus calories burned. Others turn to a simpler, and according to Kim Kardashian (a woman whose claim to fame is fame itself), more effective method—Quick Trim®!

According to their television advertisements, Quick Trim® is a dietary supplement that actually blocks ingested food from ever getting absorbed! A MIRACLE! It’s like your intestines don’t exist!

I searched the website ( to better understand how the product works. Quick Trim® comes in both pill and beverage form and “helps cleanse and detoxify”, “jump starts weight loss”, and “reduces belly bloating”. The doctor who supports this drug is not listed. Neither are the magic ingredients. In fact, the bottom of the webpage clearly states that the FDA has not evaluated this product. But Kim Kardashian says it’s good for you. So…

Knock knock… this isn’t a joke!

Ultimately, these are real, current issues in nutrition. Luckily for the world, there are people like us to guide policy in the right direction, disprove myths, inform others on healthy eating, and steer people away from quackery. When you see these things, take a moment to first laugh. Then kick your Friedman nutritionist butt into gear—we have our work cut out for us.

Overfishing: One Fish, Two Fish, Soon Too Few Fish

by Jean Alves

It’s a rare phenomenon – the amicable meeting of the minds between the public-health and culinary worlds.  Of all foods, fish may be the greatest exception to the general rule that people don’t want to eat what’s good for them.   Just in the past decade, omega-3’s became the big buzz word among health professionals, sushi became supremely chic, and salmon started to spruce up menus.  Seafood turned “superfood”, and fish got sexy.

Today, Americans eat an average of 16 pounds of seafood a year, 25% more than they did 20 years ago, and the fishing industry has enjoyed a 70% increase as a result – that’s 2 billion pounds of additional fish a year.  Yes, fish is tasty and healthy.  Life is good.  Thank goodness our oceans are an inexhaustible resource!


Sadly, of course, the world’s oceans provide only a finite amount of fish, and we, as a global community of seafood eaters, are rapidly overfishing to the point of total extinction.  Scientists predict the total collapse of all fished species in less than 50 years.   For every 10 tuna, sharks, and other large predatory fish that were in our oceans 50 to 100 years ago, only one remains.

Modern-day fishing technologies have enabled us to find, catch, and kill anything that swims or scuttles.  Radar, echo sounders, Navy-developed electronic navigation systems, and satellite-based GPS allow for more effective and efficient catches than ever before, typically by longline or purse seine fishing or trawling.

Take tuna, for example, the world’s most popular fish thank, in large part, to the booming sushi industry.  Today’s tuna is almost never caught with traditional “pole and line” equipment.  Oftentimes, longlines are used in tuna fishing.  Longlines are just that – really long lines (they can be as long as 75 miles long, a distance equal to that from sea level to space) with smaller branch lines riddled with hooks reminiscent of wirey cactus tendrils.  An estimated 27 million longline hooks are deployed every day, an unsustainable practice which has reduced bluefin tuna stocks to as low as 5% of their natural levels.

And longlines don’t just kill their target species – 145 other sea species are caught and killed inadvertently in the hunt for highly demanded tuna.  One study found that roughly 4.5 million sea animals are killed as bycatch in longline fishing every year, including about 3.3 million sharks, 1 million marlins, 60,000 sea turtles, 75,000 albatross, and 20,000 dolphins and whales.

Shrimp trawling offers another prime example of the unconscionable, let alone unsustainable, nature of modern fishing.  Trawling is even more damaging than longlines; the most common type of modern shrimp trawler sweeps an area roughly 25 to 30 meters wide as it sweeps fish (and everything else) into the far end of a funnel-shaped net.  It has been described as the marine equivalent of clear-cutting rain forest.  Whether trawling for shrimp or another target species, these enormous nets sweep up fish, sharks, rays, crabs, squid, scallops – typically about 100 different fish and other species in one big scoop.

Virtually all that are picked up die.  The average trawling operation throws 80 to 90% of the sea animals it captures as bycatch overboard.  The least efficient operations actually throw more than 98% of dead bycatch back into the ocean.  Astonishingly, while shrimp account for only 2% of global seafood by weight, shrimp trawling accounts for 33% of global bycatch.

Thus, our oceans simply cannot supply enough to satisfy our voracious appetites nor compete with our merciless fishing methods.  Clearly, an alternative is desperately needed.


While aquaculture may seem like a logical and viable answer to the problem of over fishing, it too is a system fraught with problems.  No different than land-based CAFOs, open ocean aquaculture (OOA) or “offshore aquaculture” involves cramming thousands of potentially high-value fish, such as cobia and cod, into large cages in U.S. federal waters between three and 200 miles from shore, often polluting the surrounding marine ecosystem with fish waste, excess fish feed, and chemicals at the expense of the marine environment, human health, wild fish populations, and local fishermen and coastal communities.

From an ecological standpoint, the dredging, drilling, and other sediment and bottom-habitat disturbances involved in creating and maintaining giant offshore fish farms can cause serious damage to the water and wildlife around them.  Seagrass and coral die off and other ocean animals become displaced.  In addition, farm-raised fish may pose a threat to endangered or otherwise vulnerable species.  Because such species have already become genetically different and weaker than their natural population state, escapement or intentional addition of farmed fish could completely change the integrity of the wild population’s gene pool.  Ocean fish farming facilities are often subject to uncontrollable conditions including extreme weather conditions, disease, and human precision. Facility damage by any number of unplanned events (violent storms, hungry predators, human error) could cause a major escape or significant chemical pollution.

And what about the “intentional addition” of farmed fish?  Indeed, ocean fish farming operations are often developed for programs to re-stock natural populations in decline.  However, cultured animals can look or behave differently than wild ones because of their captive conditions and may even be genetically different because they were raised to grow faster and larger.  They may not have the ability to feed, reproduce, and survive in the wild, and intentionally adding cultured animals to wild populations can, over time, change the genetic composition and behavior of natural stocks completely altering natural roles and relationships within the ecosystem.

Unnaturally cramped conditions that cause higher stress than in the wild make farmed fish prone to diseases and parasites, which are then treated with antibiotics, pesticides, and other chemicals. As with land-animal factory farming, the rampant spread of diseases among the animals calls for the use of antimicrobial agents, which leads to the creation of drug-resistant bacteria that may directly transfer to human consumers.  Both the diseases and chemicals can be transmitted beyond the fish farm to wild fish through the open-net pens.  Some of these chemicals are seriously damaging and even lethal to other species; the pesticide used to in the treatment of sea-lice infestation, a common and cruel problem among crowded fish farms, can actually kill shrimp and lobsters.

These chemicals, which apparently affect not just farmed fish but exposed wild fish as well, are also known to be potentially dangerous to humans.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies drugs as “high regulatory priority” or “low regulatory priority”.  Two drugs used in the aquaculture industry, copper sulfate and potassium permanganate, have had their status deferred pending further study.  Despite the fact that copper sulfate can cause liver and kidney damage, and potassium permanganate can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and kidney problems in humans, there are currently no set standards for their use, and aquaculture operators use them freely.


Though the current fish situation may seem bleak, consumers have some sustainable seafood choices.  First of all, you can find and download pocket-sized fish guides from a host of reputable online sources.  Check out the guides at Food & Water Watch, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, or Greenpeace.  Some of the safest choices include Alaska wild salmon and pollock, farmed mussels, oysters, and clams, and Pacific halibut.

Rob Cushman, 2nd year Agriculture, Food and Environment student is committed to supporting small-scale fisherman while still making responsible seafood choices.  Small-scale fisheries are both more environmentally and economically responsible than large-scale fishing operations.

Both large- and small-scale industries catch about the same amount of fish – 30 tons annually – for human consumption, yet while the former requires about 37 million tons of fuel oil per year, the latter uses less than one sixth of that amount.  The small-scale industry also employs 24 times as many fishers, and accounts for very little discarded bycatch, whereas large-scale fisheries throw back between eight and 20 tons of dead marine wildlife every year.

In addition to supporting local, small-scale fishers, Cushman emphasizes the importance of eating more bottom-feeder fish.  “I am and avid consumer of fresh, pickled, and canned sardines – we need to eat forage fish directly instead of feeding them to industrial chicken/pork and our pets – oysters, mussels, clams, and seaweed,” explains Cushman, adding “Mollusks and Seaweed are the ultimate win – win – win.  They are nutrition powerhouse, make organic land farming look energy intensive, and provide excellent ecological services.”

Although some of the most sustainable seafood choices may seem a bit alien and intimidating at first, Cushman insists that after doing a little homework, you’ll find lots of easy and delicious recipes.  “I used to love sushi; now I think it’s dirty word.  I now  like my seafood choices better than before.  It has forced me to be more creative and adventurous with seafood further down the food chain.”

You may also choose to join a Community Supported Fishery (CSF).  A new wave on the sustainable fishing front, CSFs are helping reconnect consumers to the ocean and small-scale local fishermen.  Local to Boston, the Cape Ann CSF provides its members with generous helpings of a variety of seafood.  “The people who delivered [the catch] were great” says Emily Kuross, PhD candidate, Food Policy and Applied Nutrition.  “And, in this new season, they’re offering already-filleted fish.”  While filleted fish are more expensive than the fish purchased whole, Kuross admits that the extra charge is probably worth it, since gutting your first fish can be intimidating and, well, stinky.

Though making the commitment to switch to a sustainable seafood diet can be challenging, Kuross finds that it’s ultimately more meaningful and enriching.  “Overall, I don’t find making moral/ecologically responsible fish choices difficult, per se, I just sometimes find it limiting.  But that’s  just a fact of life when you’re trying to make better choices.  They’ll be more limited, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and it certainly doesn’t make me feel deprived in any way…if we’re careful about our choices we can, in a
sense, have our fish and eat them too.”

Apart from encouraging environmental stewardship and supporting the viability of the local coastal economy, CFSs also cultivate ties and establish bonds between shore-side communities and those living inshore in urban, suburban, and rural areas.  To support marine conservation and the survival of the local seafood industry, consider participating in the next season of Cape Ann’s Fresh Catch CFS beginning in May.  Visit for more information.

Is Sat Fat Back? The New Atkins Diet

by Lauren Schindler

With all due respect to the late Dr. Robert Aktins, I assumed that his six-feet-under status would be the end of him. I was wrong. Atkins is back.

Doctors Eric Westman, Stephen Phinney, and Jeff Volek have revamped the Atkins diet yet again in their new book, A New Atkins for a New You: The Ultimate Diet for Shedding Weight Fast and Feeling Great Forever. I argue that the diet isn’t really “new” as the basic diet philosophy is identical: carbs are bad and fat is good.  This time around, the authors emphasize that the diet can be used for life-long weight maintenance – a commonly cited limitation of the former Atkins diet plans.

Nutritionally, the new diet has gentler low-carb tenets and more emphasis on vegetables (suggesting five per day).  But dieters are still given the green light on bacon, butter, and bologna with no limit on fat. “A lot of people think of pork rinds as junk food, but I think of them as a health food,” say co-author Eric Westman.  Although pork rinds are not traditionally included in a healthy diet, the authors attempt justification with over 50 references on the benefits and effectiveness of low-carb diets.

Most critics of the Atkins diet have concerns about the level of saturated fat in the diet (20% of total calories or more).  Recommending unlimited intake of high saturated fat foods is directly at odds with government recommendations.  The 2005 US Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise limiting saturated fat to less than 10% of total calories.

For the past 50 years, scientific consensus has supported the theory that saturated fat increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.  However, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition recently published a controversial article on saturated fat and the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke and cardiovascular disease (CVD) with results that might make Dr. Atkins smile.

In the study, Patty W Siri-Tarino, PhD, and colleagues at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute in California conducted a meta-analysis of prospective epidemiological studies.  They found “that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD.” But wait, don’t rush to your closest 7-Eleven and buy a bag of pork rinds just yet.

The authors acknowledge that there are many factors to consider in CVD, and stress that saturated fat may not be the only one – or it might not be the most important one.  They speculate that CVD risk could relate to the ratio of saturated fat to polyunsaturated fats, rather than just saturated fat alone.  They also emphasize considering the nutrients (refined carbohydrates or unsaturated fats) replacing the saturated fat. Unfortunately, this study did not have enough statistical power to evaluate those affects.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Jeremiah Stamler – a well-known CVD researcher and professor at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago – points out many holes and unanswered questions in the study.  He questions the study’s ultimate conclusions, “The authors seem to be dissociating themselves from prevailing national and international dietary recommendations…Is that their intent?”

I appreciate studies, like this one, that challenge the scientific community to take a second look at standard dogma.  However, the limitations of this specific study leave me to side with traditional recommendations to limit saturated fat.  I also fear that this study could be misunderstood by the general public – or worse, someone following the Atkins diet – as saying that going to the all-you-can eat butter buffet is perfectly fine for heart health.  This highlights an important role for nutritionists and dietitians: to clarify high-profile but potentially dubious study results to the general public.

“Spring Cleansing”: A look at the controversy surrounding detox diets

by Marina Komarovsky

Detox diets have been around since the 1970s and are back in fashion this season, along with plaids and platforms. I must admit that upon hearing about the promised health benefits of these diets, I assumed it all to be true. Nonetheless I excused myself from the bandwagon of adventurous diet experimenters by conceding that I just was not hard-core enough to give it a go. Perhaps you heard about these diets and thought, “What a terrible idea!” and it’s possible you were right. Detox diets are controversial, and as the number of diet books and “detox” products on shelves increases, the critics weigh in.

Why detox?

The purpose of a detox diet is to eliminate dietary and environmental toxins that may accumulate in cells, especially cells of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It is a sort of “spring cleansing,” as Juliann Schaeffer put it in a 2008 article in Today’s Dietitian. Because some of the common diet regimens are based on drastically reducing food intake, the GI tract is temporarily absolved of common digestion and absorption duties. In theory, this allows toxic residue to be eliminated and cells renewed.

Some of the detox diets, therefore, are partial fasts. The “Master Cleanse” is a liquid fast that is a particularly well-known option. It involves  ten days of drinking a blend of lemon juice, water, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper instead of food and taking laxatives for a colon cleansing effect. Other examples include a 3-day juice fast as well as less dramatic changes, such as switching to primarily raw foods for a limited time period.

Detox Diets Criticized

Not surprisingly, detox liquid fasts are the subjects of much controversy, mostly because they induce a state of both undernutrition and malnutrition where the body does not obtain sufficient calories or nutrients. Weight loss resulting from such a diet is pronounced but not sustained, and the use of laxatives presents a risk of electrolyte imbalance and dehydration.

During a detox fast, people tend to feel ill at first and euphoric after a point. Some claim that dieters do not feel well because toxins leave cells and enter the blood stream before being eliminated from the body. However scientific evidence is lacking. Meanwhile, the “boost in energy and … sense of euphoria … is actually a reaction to starvation,” explained Dr. Peter Pressman, internal medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in L.A. in an interview with Richard Sine of WebMD . Further, for some groups – including children, teens, and women who are pregnant – drastic caloric restriction impedes the necessary growth. If a woman is breastfeeding, the infant will not be able to obtain the necessary nourishment from breast milk. In heart disease and diabetes patients, intestinal and cardiac problems can result.

Detox Diets Qualified

But there is another side to the issue. Nutrition blogger Janet Helm, RD, had a post about detox diets on her popular site Nutrition Unplugged last month (www. She interviewed several dieticians about the topic for an article in the Chicago Tribune and uncovered a new set of potential benefits. Rather than swear by the cleansing power of lemon water, the dieticians adopted a psychological approach, relating that many people use cleansing diets as motivating milestones to kick-start shifts to healthy eating patterns. By generating a sense of commitment and achievement, in a way, the diets can work.

The Verdict?

We haven’t been able to see the health benefits from a scientific perspective, and without the strict supervision of a doctor, detox
diets can be dangerous.  While psychological effects cannot be excluded, the current understanding is that the detoxification organs – the liver, kidneys, and GI — usually do a fine job without food deprivation, and long-term health reasonably depends on eating a healthy diet over the long term. After all, even on the Master Cleanse website, the last instructional step reads, “After the Master Cleanse – adopt a healthy lifestyle.” So “spring cleansing” really is reminiscent of spring cleaning. You can embark on a cleaning mission, but if you don’t continue to dust and mop regularly, you may as well have not put in the effort. So it is a good idea to eat well and live cleanly every day.

A New Twist on Lunch: A Bento Box for Better Health

March 29, 2010

by Rachel Perez

It’s Monday morning, but Susan Yuen and Sheri Chen can be found in their respective Honolulu and San Francisco kitchens, carefully cutting carrot stubs into flower blossoms and placing decorated rice balls into brightly colored containers.  These moms are packing bento for their children, a school-day routine.

“Bento,” translated to “boxed lunch,” is a Japanese-style lunchbox that incorporates rice, protein, and vegetables into portable, yet beautiful meals.  The Japanese tradition has gained a global following in recent years, including some American moms such as Yuen and Chen.  While the bento box offers healthful inspiration for parents and their children, the concepts are equally encouraging for any Friedman student looking to freshen up their noontime nibbles.

Lunch-box nutrition never looked so good!  Susan Yuen packs 2 Tablespoons of peanut butter in a whole grain sandwich, garnished with cheese flowers, nestled with 2 servings of fruit and vegetables, and completed with calcium-rich milk.

Re-packing School Lunch.  So What’s The Problem?

At the Friedman School, the stroke of noon orchestrates the popping of Tupperware tops, often unleashing tangles of local greens, or mingled scents of leftover kitchen concoctions.  While nutritious lunches may be badges of pride for many Friedman students, such standards are lacking in many American lunchrooms-and even elementary schools.

With nearly 20% of American children ages 6-11 classified as overweight, there has been closer scrutiny of school lunch nutrition standards.  Nearly all public schools participate in the government subsidized National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which provides 30.5 million lunches to children every day.  Lunches are based on the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but compliance is not always perfect.

The 2004-2005 School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study, the most recent national survey reviewing nutrition content of schools meals, found that the majority of sampled schools were providing adequate lunchtime calories and protein.   However almost no schools were compliant with sodium recommendations, and NSLP participation was linked to excessive sodium intakes among high school–aged children.  Additionally, less than 8% of the sampled schools were providing adequate fiber, and 40% of sampled schools exceeded total fat recommendations.

The Japanese bento may provide solutions for lunchtime improvement.

Get Healthy With Bento!

What distinguishes the Japanese bento box, and how can it contribute to healthy eating patterns for both children and adults?

1. Portion Control

Bento boxes come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from stackable aluminum boxes to pastel-pink Hello Kitty containers.  The various-sized boxes allow for calorie monitoring, and bento has been used for weight loss in Japan.  As bento creating mom Yuen states, “Bento is great as a tool for portion control, as well as a better alternative to eating fast food or [store-bought] food because you can control what goes into your food.”

Early forms of bento originated with ancient Japanese hunter and gatherers, who carried tightly wrapped rations of dried food in bamboo pouches or cloth.  However Japan’s modern day boxed lunch hails from 16th century Lord Oda Nobunaga, who portioned out Spartan lunches to his feudal vassals for convenient and mobile meals.  His troops soon learned to expect these bento rations, which usually consisted of “musubi” (rice balls) and “umeboshi” (pickled plum) wrapped in a leaf.  Today bento is still a useful tool to monitor proper serving sizes.

Lunchtime balance includes 1 cup of veggie fried brown rice, 1 poached egg, ½ cup of fruit, ¼ cup vegetables, and 1 pint of milk.  Bento is compliments of Susan Yuen.

2. Balance in a Box

The aesthetic nature of bento requires an array of different foods to create a pleasing harmony of colors, textures, and shapes.  Such balance can liven up any lunchbox, and prevent home-packed meals from becoming predictable or boring.

Yuen has used bento to diversify her children’s palates.  She notes, “I try to incorporate all of the different food groups, including fresh vegetables and fruit.  I also send a variety of things so that it encourages my children to eat a wide range of foods.”

Although Susan Yuen makes bento every day, it always changes. “Some days it’s the traditional bento with rice, a protein, fruits, and veggies.   On other days I do sandwiches or leftovers that I pack in thermal containers.  My daughter’s favorite is beef stew.”

Sheri Chen, another bento making mom, acknowledges that bento can make vegetables fun to eat.  “When I make the veggies into something cute like carrot flowers, it [makes] my [kids] interested in it.  My girl gets distracted by cuteness, and will eat the vegetable decorations without hesitation.” Chen makes vegetable consumption feasible for her children, often featuring a single carrot, a small broccoli, a few peapods, and a sweet potato flower rather than an intimidating bag of carrot sticks.

3. A Bento Mindset is a Healthful Mindset

Ultimately, the bento allows both the maker and the eater to appreciate food for its color, texture, and taste.  With a mother’s perspective, Chen concludes, “A bento box is a package of love you send to school with your child.  I feel so much better knowing that he gets a substantial, healthy meal to give him energy during the learning part of his day.”

Additionally, the bento box challenges lunch-makers to new levels of creativity.  Susan Yuen has found particular enjoyment in “charaben,a specific bento style that decorates food to resemble people, animals, or fictional characters.  Yuen’s passion eventually led to the creation of her first cookbook in 2008, titled Hawai`i’s Bento Box Cookbook: Bentos and More for Kids. A sequel is due this year.

Friedman students, has bento inspired you to upgrade your lunchbox?

Even if it’s PB-and-J, try it the bento way!

Yuen’s bento illustrates the “charaben” style, where food is decorated to resemble characters and animals.  This cheese tiger is decorated with “nori” (seaweed).


Hungry For More Bento?

Check-out These Blogs:

Happy Little Bento

Susan Yuen’s cookbook and bento blog

A bento blogger offers cute inspiration from Indonesia.

Bento Central – Featuring bento resources including tutorials, videos, recipes, articles, blogs, and more.

Just Bento – Website dedicated to healthy and simple bentos, often with traditional Japanese perspectives.

Check-out These Books:

Hawai`i’s Bento Box Cookbook: Bentos and More for Kids.



2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

“Bento Basics.”  Just Bento.

Center for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics.

Chen, Sheri.  Email correspondence. March 12th, 2010.

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It’s Never Too Early for B12…Fortification

by Amy Scheuerman

It’s Never Too Early for B12…Fortification

B12 is often thought of as an issue for the elderly, but here at Friedman we know better.  Policies made today can effect our tomorrow.  While some of these decisions, like eating right and exercising, are obvious, others such as changing government policy are less so.  However, with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans up for revision in the coming months, now is the time to look at some of the recommendations that will be made and how they will effect us as we grow older.

The older you are the more likely a vitamin B12 deficiency becomes.  By the time you reach age 65 there’s a one in four chance that you will have a B12 deficiency.  This is a scary statistic since low B12 is highly associated with the development of dementia.  In fact, some of the cutting edge research on B12 and its relationship with cognitive function is being done right here at the Jean Meyer Human Nutrition Research Center.

B12 Diet and Digestion

Our bodies and brains require B12 to function, but they do not produce it and must get it through diet. Vitamin B12 is found in meat, milk and eggs. Older adults are at a high risk of developing B12 deficiency due to the fact that this population tends to eat less meat, and because they have more trouble digesting proteins.

The B12 found in meat and animal products is bound to the proteins in those foods.  Before B12 can be absorbed by the body it must be broken apart from these proteins.  This process happens in the stomach when the protein begins to be broken down by stomach acid.

Unfortunately, as people age the amount of stomach acid they produce decreases.  This decrease in the amount of stomach acid affects almost 20% of people in their fifties and almost 70% of people in their eighties.  Since stomach acid is needed to break B12 apart from proteins in order for the B12 to be available to the body, the older you are the more at risk you become for B12 deficiency.

B12 deficiency is very prevalent…and can have major consequences.

B12 and Cognition

“Twenty-five percent of the elderly population suffers from B12 deficiency, and although causation cannot be shown there is a high correlation between deficiency and cognitive decline,” says Dr. Jacob Selhub, Senior Scientist at the Jean Meyer Human Nutrition Research Center at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Basically, not getting enough B12 may push underlying factors (such as genetics, or stress levels) into overdrive, causing mental decline or dementia in people with a predisposition.

Why is this well documented B12 deficiency in older adults not noticed and treated more often? The reason may be hidden in our daily bread.

Folic Acid Fortification and B12 Deficiency

In January of 1998 the FDA began mandatory folic acid fortification of cereal grain products sold in the United States.  The reason for this policy was to prevent neural tube defects, a specific type of birth defect.  Since most people eat bread products fortifying them with folic acid seemed like a good way to prevent birth defects.

However, the fortification of grains with folic acid presents risks to the elderly.  Dr Ralph Green, MD, Chair of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the UC Davis Medical Center, was one of the first researchers to recognize potential risks.  Speaking at the American Association for Clinical Chemistry meeting in July of 2003, he pointed out that higher levels of folic acid intake prevent the anemia produced by B12 deficiencies.

Anemia, a condition where there are not enough red blood cells or those cells are malformed and cannot do their job, is the major symptom associated with B12 deficiency.  If a person consumes a lot of folic acid this symptom of vitamin B12 deficiency can be hidden–but the underlying problem isn’t solved.

Dementia and cognitive impairment are some of the worse side effects of a B12 deficiency, but there are others that may occur depending on how severe the deficiency is.  Women with low B12 levels are twice as likely to suffer from clinical depression as women with normal levels.  Sleepless nights are another possible side effect of a mild deficiency.  In the worst cases B12 deficiency can mimic Alzheimer’s Disease and progress in the same way, resulting in complete loss of memory and death.

What’s the Solution?

Hopefully someday the USDA and FDA will realize that folic acid fortification without B12 fortification is bad news for the elderly and begin B12 fortification.  However, this won’t happen unless educated people lobby for it.

If someone you care about is over the age of 65, encourage them to get tested for low B12 or high folic acid levels.  A general practitioner should be able to order the tests.  There is no evidence that increasing B12 improves cognition or prevents mental decline in people who do not have low B12 levels.  Therefore increasing the amount of B12 in someone’s system will only help if you are already low or if your folic acid levels are very high.

Since protein bound B12 is less accessible to the elderly, upping the amount of meat or meat products in someone’s diet may not help.  Instead, the best advice is to take a crystalline B12 supplement.  Unlike protein bound B12, absorption of unbound crystalline vitamin B12 actually begins in the mouth where it can be absorbed through the mucus membranes.  You can easily find a crystalline B12 supplement at a drugstore, the grocery store, or a health and nutrition store such as GNC.

“For those who do have evidence of deficiency (or borderline deficiency), there is no harm in taking oral B12, and I would recommend this for my own patients,” says Dr. Christopher H. van  Dyck, Director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Unit at the Yale University School of Medicine.

Mental decline and aging are difficult things to face personally or in loved ones, but eating a healthy diet, interacting with friends, and having a healthy level of B12 can all help.  Encourage the FDA to start B12 fortification of cereals as soon as possible.