Apples to Additives: What's Being Served in Local School Lunches?

May 19, 2014

The chicken patty sandwich on the lunch menu at Albemarle County schools comes with more than a bun and some sauce, kids are also getting a taste of azodicarbonamide. The additive also known as ADA is used as a bleaching agent in bread, but it's also used to make yoga mats and sneakers.

ADA is banned in Europe and Australia and has been linked to respiratory issues and allergies by the World Health Organization. It is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in foods at levels below 45 parts per million.

Along with the hamburger buns in Albemarle County schools, ADA is a listed ingredient on the "BBQ on a Bun" served in Louisa County schools

"The World Health Organization has said ADA isn't absorbed in our body, we typically excrete it in feces," said Angie Hasemann, a pediatric dietitian at the University of Virginia. "Many times there is negative publicity and we think we don't want this strange chemical in our body when research shows this one might not be that harmful."

Even so, Flowers Bakery, the Lynchburg-based company that provides hamburger buns to Albemarle County schools says it has stopped using the ingredient. Similarly, a spokesperson for Bake Crafters, the company that supplies hamburger buns to schools in Louisa County says the company started removing the ingredient from products distributed to schools three months ago. However, the buns have a frozen shelf life of one year so it will be several months before the additive is wiped out of school lunches.

Another ingredient causing concern among some health professionals is the caramel coloring found in the breaded nuggets, beef patties, and teriyaki chicken served in Greene County schools. It contains the artificial chemical 4-methylimidazole which has been linked to cancer. A recent Consumer Reports study urges regulators to set a maximum level of the substance when it's added to foods or soda. The FDA says it has studied the use of caramel as a flavor and color additive for decades but will review new data on the safety of 4-methylimidazole.

An ingredient listed as Autolyzed Yeast Extract contains Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), is found in several lunch entrees served to elementary schools students in Fluvanna, Albemarle, Greene, and Louisa counties. Although the FDA has classified MSG as a food ingredient that's "generally recognized as safe," the use of MSG remains controversial. It's been linked to migraines and heart palpitations so the FDA requires that companies list MSG on the label when it's added to foods.

All of the preservatives or additives found in the school lunch entrees are being ingested in very small amounts by students, but how big of an impact could it have on a child's health?

"We don't know," said Hasemann. "All of them have passed the review the USDA has performed on them but more research needs to be done."

Several school districts in Central Virginia are putting an emphasis on buying local. One of the most popular items on the menu at Greer Elementary in Albemarle County is the hummus platter. The food services departments purchases it directly from The Farm at Red Hill in North Garden.

"The key is to find items that students would like to choose and pick," said Christina Pitsenberger, the food services director for Albemarle County schools. Her department conducts taste tests with students, encouraging them to try new things.

"Many times what you'll hear is, if you create a healthy tray without asking the kids, you're just creating healthy trash cans," said Hasemann.

The staff at Albemarle County serves six thousand lunches every day. Pitzenberger said it's a balancing act to serve items students will eat, while considering cost and nutrition. But with so many students to feed and a tight budget, could schools stop purchasing packaged items altogether, and only serve local and fresh?

Hasemann doesn't think so. "To think that our society can provide foods that haven't been processed or don't have any additives is a bit of a ridiculous thought."

She says the best way to make sure your children are eating healthy meals is to start at home and set a good example by eating healthy yourself.

"Regardless of what food is on a child's plate, if half the plate or half the tray is fruits and vegetables, they are likely getting a fairly healthy lunch."

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