Mystery meat not withstanding, high school cafeterias can provide nutritional, balanced and healthful meals, but students have to choose correctly. Now, researchers at Penn State have found that point-of-selection nutrition information cards can spur students to pick the right foods.
"Nutrition information is already used in most school districts to meet the Healthy School Meals Initiative," says Dr. Martha T. Conklin, associate professor of hospitality management. "This same information could be made available at the point of selection with very little additional cost."
The researchers displayed the nutrition information in the standard U.S. Food and Drug Administration's style for Nutrition Facts Labels found on all packaged foods.
"We used the Nutrition Facts Label because students might already be familiar with nutrition information in this format," says Conklin.
Supplying nutrition information seemed to influence food selection as students increasingly opted for more healthful entrees. While students did not switch from cheeseburgers and pepperoni pizza to salad, they did choose foods with less fat and fewer calories, the researchers report in a recent issue of the Journal of Child Nutrition and Management.
"There was a significant switch from pepperoni pizza to plain cheese pizza," says Conklin. "The sale of cheeseburgers and bacon cheeseburgers decreased, while sales of hamburgers and veggie burgers increased."
The researchers, who included Conklin; Dr. David A. Cranage, assistant professor of hospitality management, and Dr. Carolyn U. Lambert, associate professor of food systems management, conducted their study in four school districts in Pennsylvania. Two of the districts had two high schools so one school became a control.
For the first six weeks of the fall semester, the cafeterias operated normally. These cafeterias were in schools that ran the gamut from traditional, straight-line cafeterias to those with a scramble system and many a la carte offerings. The next six weeks – the second time through the menu cycle – the cafeterias posted point-of-selection nutrition information for each entree. For pasta, sandwich and potato bars, cafeterias posted nutrient contents of typical choices for comparison.
Labels included serving size; calories; total and saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, protein, vitamins A and C, calcium and iron. While the study showed that the fiber, Vitamin A, C, iron and sodium content did not influence student choices, calorie and fat levels appeared to be especially persuasive.
The shift in food preferences after the point-of-selection nutrition information appeared was slight to moderate. In the two control schools where cafeterias did not provide nutrition information, the same shifts did not occur.
During the second menu cycle, all entrees showed a slight dip in sales, probably due to boredom. However, there was a significant increase in sales of items lower in fat and calories in schools providing nutrition information. Point-of-sale nutrition information did not just influence sales of traditional teenage fare. In one school, chicken entree choices changed as well, apparently based on fat content.
Chicken dishes containing 20 or more grams of fat, such as chicken nuggets, popcorn chicken and chicken quesadillas, were less popular after the institution of the nutrition information signs. Chicken dishes with less than 20 grams of fat seemed to be chosen based on a second criterion – calories. Those dishes with more than 500 calories, such as chicken stromboli or chicken fajitas, were chosen less often. Those with the same fat content, but fewer calories, oven-baked chicken or kabobs, were chosen more often. For very low-fat dishes, sweet and sour chicken or roast chicken salad, calories seemed not to matter, but consumption of these healthier dishes also increased.
The researchers noted that cafeterias only provided nutrition information for entrees, not side dishes or desserts. They also believe that more research is necessary to decide if similar results would occur with high school students across the country and whether younger students will react the same. There were similar results with high school students from a variety of ethnic backgrounds who live in rural, suburban and urban areas of the state, according to the researchers.
"Overweight adolescents are a major public health concern in the U.S.," says Conklin. "Students who change their eating behaviors to choose more healthful food will have an increased chance of maintaining an appropriate weight and developing healthy eating habits that last a lifetime."