Last month, a House committee voted for a Republican-backed measure that would allow school districts to temporarily opt out of new school-lunch nutrition standards, a key piece in first lady Michelle Obama's fight against childhood obesity. Passed in 2010 with White House support, the legislation sets mandates to reduce salt, sugar and fat and to increase whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. While the new federal legislation is opposed by lawmakers in some states because they believe the new standards will burden already-strained budgets, it is also opposed by lobby groups for several large food companies that sell frozen pizzas, french fries and other prepared and highly processed foods to school districts. They worry that the new rules will negatively impact their profits.
It may be time to ask if everything our children like is actually good for them. Indeed, according to a raft of studies published over the past few years, it is possible our nation's youth are literally addicted to the high-calorie, high-salt and high-fat food now available in many school lunchrooms. If true, in the school lunch battles shaping up between money and health, shouldn't we be erring on the side of our children's health?
For example, a 2012 study from the Oregon Research Institute shows that ice cream alters the brain in the same way as drugs like heroin, nicotine and cocaine. Furthermore, consuming it in large amounts, and then stopping, leads to the same cycle of cravings and withdrawal that characterizes addiction to illegal drugs.
This study is but one in a growing body of scientific support for the phenomenon of food addiction, or the understanding that high levels of salt, sugar and fat are not just unhealthy, but actually addictive when consumed in sufficient quantities.
In one of the most striking examples of this research, scientists from Princeton University found that mice who were fed a high-calorie, high-salt and high-fat "junk food" diet of bacon, cheesecake, sausage and chocolate quickly became obese and compulsive eaters who refused to stop eating even when given electric shocks. Importantly, once the mice began to consume the highly processed food, they no longer liked or had a taste for the healthier options available to them and refused to eat them. Shouldn't we at least be asking if there is a relationship between these studies and the preferences our children have for certain kinds of foods?
Certainly food addiction research shows us there are worrisome consequences for watching a generation of children develop a taste for the high-fat and high-calorie meals described in the studies. This is particularly true for those in low-income areas, where many children eat at least two meals per day at school and may not have access to healthier options at home.
Reducing the addictive levels of salt, fat and sugar our children eat in school is not only a tool for fighting obesity — there are other benefits too. In both the United States and Great Britain, dietary changes in school lunches have led to reduced behavioral problems in school, higher grades and to decreases in the use of prescription drugs to treat attention deficit disorders.
In one particularly striking example of the potential benefits for eliminating addictive foods from youthful diets, five years ago in a public high school for at-risk students in Appleton, Wis., a natural food store swapped out the soda machines for others offering juice, water and low-sugar energy drinks. In addition, in the cafeteria they prepared meals entirely free of additives and chemicals, but with abundant amounts of fresh fruit, vegetables and whole-grain breads. The principal reported that within a year she had no expulsions from the school. Teachers reported that the students were more attentive and could concentrate for longer periods of time.
Though it is not the whole story, the studies on food addiction make clear that children in school preferring to eat food highly processed food that is high in calories, fat and salt may be more complicated than we have previously understood. Our nation's children may think that everything they like is good for them, but there is no reason for the rest of us to believe so as well.
Rooks is an associate professor in Africana Studies and Feminist, Gender, Sexuality Studies at Cornell University.