Monday, November 28, 2011

Pizza As A Vegetable: An Out Of The Culinary Editorial

Good evening everyone! We hope all of you had a fantastic Thanksgiving spent with family, friends and of course, good food! Did anyone cook for themselves? Perhaps try a new recipe or two? Or, are you more of the ‘consumer’ type? Either way, it was a great – enjoyable holiday for your two favorite amateur chefs. We cooked up some side dishes, spent time with family and all in all had a relaxing weekend.

While we were focused in on cooking turkey day dishes, some news broke in the culinary world that we were not able to get to – but we will certainly address now. I’m sure you’ve heard of it by now – it was all over the news. Last week, in an inexplicable ruling that left many Americans scratching their heads, Congress declared that pizza was a vegetable.

Yes, pizza, which has an average nutritional profile that looks like this:

Is now a vegetable. You had better believe that your ‘eat right, healthy school food menus, focus on nutrition culinary blog’ is going to weigh in on this one!

First and foremost, let’s clean up some misconceptions. The government did not declare that pizza was a vegetable. In fact, nowhere in their new health guidelines does the word ‘pizza’ appear. What they did do, however, was declare that 1/8 of a cup of tomato sauce (or paste - more on that later) now constitutes as a serving of vegetables.

As you can probably infer, this (surprisingly low) serving of tomato sauce has opened the door so foods such as spaghetti and pizza now contain a serving of ‘vegetables’.

Let’s begin the debate on the side that supports pizza (for all intents and purposes) becoming a vegetable. Here are the main points in favor of the new legislation:

  • When compared directly with other fruit (apples for example) tomato sauce is actually pretty healthy
  • Tomatoes are a fruit – they are on the pizza – fruit is good for you - it should count as a serving
  • Don’t tell me what I can feed my kids
Now, here are just a few counter points to those arguments:

While it is true that tomato paste is comparable to an apple when you weigh them side by side – you are losing the forest through the trees. Tomato sauce might not be that bad for you on its own, but the kids are not eating tomato sauce only. That tomato sauce is coming attached to enriched (AKA bleached) white flour (Click: Why that’s bad for you), covered in fatty cheese (schools can usually only afford the lower quality cheeses or in most cases buy from manufacturers who are looking to increase their bottom line. Lower quality cheese means lower cost. Lower cost means higher profit margins.) What covers this cheese? Usually sodium filled meats (ham, pepperoni and sausage are some of the worst meats from a pure nutritional standpoint). When you add it all up, any benefit you’ve gained from tomato paste is lost in enriched flour, fatty (low quality) cheese, and sodium laced meats.

Secondly, yes tomatoes are fruit and they are present on the pizza. So, from a simple standpoint of ‘it’s better to have it on there than to not have it at all’ it certainly isn’t all a bad thing. However, I’d like to point out that there isn’t even 1/8 of a cup of tomato sauce on an average slice of pizza. The regulation is written in such a way that allows for the aggregate amount of sauce used to be counted and then divided against number of children served as well as the aggregate used on the entire pizza - rather than the individual slices. The math works out in such a way that pizza just clears the guidelines (funny – it’s like they planned that…) In fact, some studies have found that there is as little as 1/16 of a cup (1 tablespoon) of sauce on an average slice of pizza. 1/8 of a cup of tomato sauce is already a small amount (2 tablespoons) – but, on average, most slices of ready made, frozen pizza (the type that will be served in schools) don’t even reach that portion size. What's even worse is that most of these pizzas don't even use tomato sauce they use a form of tomato paste which is diluted with water and other additives. This lowers the actual amount of nutritionally viable tomato to nearly nothing. To get that 1/8 of a cup of tomato sauce that is actually a serving kids would have to eat an entire pizza.

This last argument really irks me. No, we (the health conscious public and sane folks of the world) are not trying to tell your kids what to eat. Mrs. Obama is not ‘breaking into your kitchen and packing your kids lunches’ (A quote I heard this past week from a source whose stupidity will not be revealed here). First and foremost, these guidelines were put into place to ensure that schools were providing healthy meals to their students. While we would all like to believe that all school administrators would act on behalf of the best interest of their students, that simply is not the case. Many school officials are presented with ever decreasing budgets and are forced to feed a higher density of students with less funding. As a consequence of this – schools are going to opt to save money every place they can. In the 80's & 90’s some schools were caught serving what could barely constitute as a lunch to their students. This bare minimum meal was blamed on the fact that the schools simply could not afford to feed their students. Federal aid was put into place, which came with guidelines as to what the schools could buy and what they should include in their meals.

This gave us the standards for schools lunches that we’ve had over the past 15 years or so. While flawed, these standards attempted to keep all schools on or at least close to a federally mandated health guideline. (The guideline is out of date, works by old nutritional standards and in some places is flat out ridiculous – but that’s an argument for another day).

Finally, the government is not telling you what to feed your kids. You’re still free to feed them chocolate cake and Coca-Cola for breakfast, send them with a large plate of nachos for lunch and take them to McDonalds for dinner. If you want to feed your kid crap – you’re free to do so. What the government is doing (or at least was trying to do) is offering a health(ier) option for kids. Frankly, most parents won’t admit this, but they need the help. Here are the simple facts:

  • Over the past 30 years, childhood obesity has tripled
  • In 1980, the percentage of 6-11 year olds that were obese was 7%. In 2008 the percentage for the same age range was 20%. That means that 1-5 kids are obese. Not overweight – OBESE. (Overweight is defined as having excess weight for a particular height caused by excess water, fat, bone or muscle or any combination thereof. Obese is defined by having excess FAT)
  • Obese youth are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease. In a population sample of 5-17 year olds, 70% of obese youth had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease
  • Obese children have a greater risk to develop bone and joint problems, sleep apnea and many other health related disabilities (Source: CDC)
What’s the cause of this great waistline expansion in our youth? According to the CDC:

“The dietary and physical activity behaviors of children are influenced by many sectors of society, including families, communities, schools, child care providers, medical care providers, faith based institutions, government agencies, the media, the food and beverage industries and the entertainment industries”

Simply put, a children’s health is greatly influenced by the world around him/her. We are living in a world where food and beverage manufacturers are looking to sell to kids (Click: how advertisers target children) and where they are looking to sell food as an addiction (Click: 60 Minutes behind the scenes look at the flavoring industry). Combine this with lowered quality in many foods (Source) and the fact that – simply put, parents are not making the best decisions when it comes to feeding their kids (Some of this results from the great food stamp debate (subsidized stamps can only buy low quality goods) – some of it is just lazy parenting) and you end up with what we have today. Overweight kids and a nation with weight related problems.

For what’s it’s worth, the CDC has a solution to fixing this issue:

“Schools play a particularly critical role by establishing a safe and supportive environment with policies and practices that support healthy behaviors. Schools also provide opportunities for students to learn about and practice healthy eating habits and physical activity”
(Underlining added for emphasis by Out Of The Culinary)

Once again, simply put – it starts at the school level. A healthy menu, healthy practices and education and you’re halfway to a healthier youth population. The government is not telling you what to feed your kids – it is trying to make your kids healthier, more informed and better decision makers when it comes to nutrition.

So How Did We Get Here?

The bane of everything that is government reform – lobbyists. On November 17th, 2011 – Congress was addressing the new guidelines for school lunch menus and the nutritional standards that they would need to follow. The early reports were that it was not shaping up good to be a potato manufacturer or a supplier of frozen foods. Early indications were fruit and veggies were in – potatoes were being shown the door and frozen foods were getting squeezed off the menu too.

Enter the lobbyists. With a great push from some powerful dollars – Congress not only backed off of removing potatoes and frozen goods – but they also tweaked some nutritional guidelines to let more of these foods ON to the menu (lowering amounts and standards).

The end result? Congress valued the almighty dollar over the nutrition and well being of school children. I don’t want to paint this as a total loss; the new standards do call for the doubling of fruits and vegetables currently being served as well as reduce the overall limits for calories, fats and sodium. It’s a shame that Congress bent on this issue when they had a chance to make real changes, however.

What We Can Do About It:

Jamie Oliver, the champion of better nutrition when it comes to school food – started a campaign to let Congress know that this action is not okay. He is encouraging constituents to call, write and email their local congressman to let him/her know that the American public will not stand for haphazard and careless policies like this. Check out Jamie’s page HERE on this issue for more.

The biggest thing you can do is not stand by on this issue. Continue to encourage the betterment of school food and food programs. If you have children, teach them healthy eating habits and really encourage smart choices. Whether you have kids or not – we all have a dog in this fight. These kids are the future of America – a future that could be plagued with problems and health costs if we don’t take sufficient action to fix what has gone wrong in recent years.

With that, I’ll conclude my soapbox rant for today. If you made it all the way to the bottom of this article, I thank you for reading our perspective. While we are certainly not unbiased on this issue (we’re obviously pro-reform on school food) we tried to present clear, logical and fact based reasons to our debate. I hope you enjoyed this ‘editorial’ of sorts and I encourage you to read more into the issue and get involved!

We’re back to cooking normal (non turkey day related) dishes this week. Maggie will take to the kitchen on Tuesday night and I’ll finish off the week on Wednesday. Tune in tomorrow night to see what we’ve got cooking. Until then,


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