It is a pleasure to introduce Dr. Georgianna Mann as a guest columnist this week. Last June I published an article on school lunches and waste. Even a hard-core, processed-food guy like me was surprised at all the prackaged foods in our local school lunchroom either served by the staff or brought from home. Dr. Mann, a former student of mine, sent in some comments and helped me better understand changes in school lunches in recent years. She is actually doing research in this area, and I asked her to describe the implications of her work in this area.I am so pleased and proud of her accomplishments.
Snacks available at a local store.
Copycat snacks as sold in schools. Can you tell the difference?
Headlines were made in 2012 when the school lunch nutrition standards set by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 were implemented in school cafeterias. The hashtag #ThanksObama often accompanied photos of mushy mystery lunches and skimpy side dishes. Other, more positive, media showed beautiful salad bars, delicious colorful vegetables, and happy children consuming both. This is a depressing and eye-opening display of the inconsistencies between individual school cafeterias, geographic regions, and cultures. To this day the debate continues whether or not these standards were primarily helpful or harmful. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue recently signed a relaxation of standards which allows continued waivers for whole wheat requirements and sodium restrictions in school lunches.1 It will be interesting to see how school food service is affected!
Another, less known, regulation was initiated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This regulation, Smart Snacks in School, placed standards on all foods sold in schools including à la carte, vending, school stores, and fundraisers in summer of 2014. In true form following the nutrition standards for lunch, these were also hotly debated.
My dissertation, under Dr. Elena Serrano at Virginia Tech, sought to determine what effects these standards had on both the availability of snacks and the potential changes in student in-school diets due to the standards. I’ll save you two years of research and several articles’ of reading: schools were more compliant after the standards took effect, but we saw no changes in student diet that we could attribute to the standards.2 Take this with a grain of salt: it was done only in southwest Appalachian Virginia.
Exploring why student diets did not change, despite the increase in compliance, is an important pursuit. My first thought was that the diet surveys were inaccurate or not precise enough to measure dietary differences year to year. However, there were distinct differences by school. For example, students who attended one school that added a flavored water had significantly higher consumption of flavored water. Similarly, another school with several Gatorade vending machines also had higher consumption rates of sports drinks. There had to be something else going on.
My colleagues and I noticed that the same types of foods were sold both before and after the standards, but the product formulations were markedly different which enabled schools to maintain compliance with the Smart Snacks standards. Enter the idea of copycat snacks.3
These snacks align with the Smart Snacks standards but are not extensively offered outside of schools. However, these brands are offered in stores but have a different formulation that do not meet the school standards. An article written by Harris, et al. concluded that these snacks can create consumer confusion among parents and students alike.4 The packages do look remarkably similar. I have handed copycat snacks and store versions of Rice Krispies, Fruit by the Foot, and Cheetos among others to seminar audience members. Very rarely are all the copycat snacks identified!
This discovery led to only more questions. Can students taste the difference in these copycat snacks (school) and store versions? Can they tell a difference when they are physically holding snack packages?
I completed a study marrying my master’s training in sensory analysis and my doctoral research on school standards to answer these questions in fall of 2016.5 I found that students could not taste the difference between school and store Doritos and Froot Loops. However, they rated the two products differently: they perceived the school version of snacks to be healthier, less tasty, and had a lower intention to purchase.
Unlike the Doritos and Froot Loops, students could discern the difference between the two Rice Krispie treats: some noted that the school version was crunchier, tasted more healthy and was less sweet.5 Further descriptions and complete data analysis may be found in the article published in Appetite.
What if food companies opted to reformulate all store snacks to match their copycat versions? As a person who values nutrition a bit more than the average American, I believe that this could be an opportunity for sneaky reformulation in the mass market. Like Kraft’s macaroni and cheese reformulation, this action could create appeal to parents who are trying to give their children healthier options for snacks without jeopardizing loss in loyal customers who enjoy the familiar taste. Others have suggested repackaging snacks sold in schools. I am a firm believer that improving school nutrition education might also help.
The findings of this study left me wondering, do these copycat snacks influence student snack decisions overall? Does the presence of these snacks affect student brand loyalty?
Suggestions for school snacks range from “do nothing” to “offer nothing”. I believe there is a happy medium that can be a win for both companies, and the health of our young Americans. I do find it fascinating that these standards, intended to improve dietary quality, resulted in much of the same food offered as snacks. As in many cases, the matter is far more complicated than it seems. Pulling these snacks could result in a loss of valuable revenue for the school meal programs in each school, and children may end up bringing much of the same from home. It will be interesting to see how these nutrition standards impact the school food environment long term.
Georgianna Mann studied animal science and food science at the University of Georgia (go dawgs!) where she met Dr. Shewfelt in his intro class. She earned her MS in Food Science and Technology as well as her PhD in Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise at Virginia Tech. She currently works as an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi. Building on a food science and nutrition policy background, her research focuses on school nutrition policy, adolescent health, and nutrition education. She lives in Oxford, Mississippi with her husband, Matt, and fur babies: two cats and one horse.
- Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium Requirements. 7 CFR §210, 215, 220, 226 (2017). https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/11/30/2017-25799/child-nutrition-programs-flexibilities-for-milk-whole-grains-and-sodium-requirements. Accessed January 1, 2018.
- Mann G, Hosig K, Zhang A, Shen S, Serrano E. Smart Snacks in School Legislation Does Not Change Self-Reported Snack Food and Beverage Intake of Middle School Students in Rural Appalachian Region. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2017;49(7):599-604.e1. doi:10.1016/j.jneb.2017.05.338.
- Wilking C. Copycat Snacks in Schools. Boston; 2014. http://www.phaionline.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/PHAI-Copy-Cat-Snacks-Issue-Brief-FINAL.pdf. Accessed September 14, 2014.
- Harris JL, Hyary M, Schwartz MB. Effects of offering look-alike products as smart snacks in schools. Child Obes. 2016;12(6):432-439. doi:10.1089/chi.2016.0080.
- Mann G. Copycat snacks: Can students differentiate between school and store snacks? Appetite. 2018;121:63-68. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2017.10.028.