Michelle Obama’s “healthy” juice doesn’t meet the school’s nutritional standards

Former school lunch czar Michelle Obama has ruined the appetites of many school children with her makeover of their lunches. Now that she’s out of the White House and buying time there, her latest venture is as co-founder of PLEZI Nutrition. The company sells foods and beverages intended to be healthier for children. The first product on sale is a children’s drink with no added sugar. Ironically, that product doesn’t qualify for school lunch programs.

Bloomberg has released an extensive report on Obama’s latest venture and its products. I would provide specific excerpts but it is behind a paywall. Obama wants to sell an alternative to soda. The juice is intended for children aged 6 and over. The company probably wouldn’t qualify to supply its juice for school lunch programs—the very ones with nutritional requirements it has imposed on public schools across the country. Those guidelines have required school lunch drinks to be 100 percent milk, water or juice since 2014.

The drinks, available in four flavors, have no added sugar, are high in fiber and contain 75 percent less sugar than “mainstream juices,” making them a much more appealing alternative for parents.

But health experts have stressed that “healthier” doesn’t necessarily mean healthier, and eventually, kids will still be clamoring for more sugary drinks.

While they contain no added sugar, the juice content comes almost exclusively from concentrate, which typically contains less nutritional value than whole fruit juice (hence the added fiber).

The drinks also contain plant-based sweeteners, stevia and monk leaf extract, which were believed to be a healthier alternative to sugar, though the World Health Organization released new guidelines this week urging people to avoid the stevia.

Less sugar doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. Encouraging children to consume less sugar is a worthy goal. However, marketing a drink as healthy that contains sugar is a little inaccurate, if you ask me. PLEZI juice does not have added sugar but still contains 6 grams of sugar and fruit concentrates per eight-ounce bottle. There are 35 calories, two grams of fiber and 100 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin C. Some experts say you shouldn’t be selling “ultra-processed” sugary drinks to very young children.

Jerold Mande, an adjunct professor of nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and CEO of Nourish Science, a nutrition-focused nonprofit, told Bloomberg: ‘She was underserved by consultants who convinced her to start by targeting 6 to 12-year-olds with a flashy, ultra-processed drink that may not be healthier than diet soda.’

Plezi’s CEO insisted that his product is an example of a good processed food and “labelling Plezi an ‘ultra-processed food’ is cynical at best if not intellectually dishonest.”

Michelle Obama’s experience of what children will and won’t eat (or drink) should be questioned however. His revamp of school lunch nutrition resulted in massive amounts of wasted food and kids not eating their lunch. While the less sugary-than-her juice is meant to change the taste of young children so they don’t gravitate to soda, if the kids don’t like the taste of the food, they won’t eat it. Growing children need lunch so they can stay alert and able to learn in school. Michelle Obama has no special education in nutrition. I can appreciate your interest in her as a mother who raised her children, but she wouldn’t necessarily be considered an expert if she weren’t a former first lady.

This comes at a time when the food police are trying to get flavored milk out of schools. They’re coming for your kid’s chocolate milk. New standards for school meals are due soon, according to the US Department of Agriculture, and a ban on flavored milk is being considered. If the ban goes into effect, chocolate, strawberries or other varieties of milk will no longer be allowed. Only white milk. Concern over sugar consumption is behind a potential ban.

Adults are divided on the matter. Shocking that people are split on an issue these days, I know.

The issue has divided parents, child nutrition specialists, school meals officials and others. Proponents of limiting flavored milk say it has added sugars that contribute to childhood obesity and set preferences for overly sweet drinks. But opponents, including the dairy industry and many school districts, say removing it will lead to children drinking less milk.

We want to take a product that most kids like and that contains nine essential nutrients and say, “You can’t drink this, you have to drink it straight?” asked Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, which represents 18 of the largest school districts in the country. What are we trying to prove?

The problem is that flavored milks are offered for children to drink milk. Children who turn up their noses at white milk will drink flavored milk. The USDA is between a rock and a hard place on the matter.

The USDA proposed guidelines for school meals earlier this year but withheld the recommendation on flavored milks, most of which are chocolate.

Flavored milk is a challenging matter for figuring out exactly the best path forward, said Cindy Long, administrator of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, explaining why the agency is evaluating two options. We really want to encourage children to consume milk and we also recognize the need to reduce the consumption of added sugars.

The USDA is considering excluding flavored lattes for elementary and possibly middle school, but continues to offer it in high school. Or it could continue to offer it at all grade levels.

The dairy industry is working to keep flavored milk in schools. Less sugar in those dairy options will likely be a requirement if they stay in schools. One thing is certain, when flavored milks are not available, less milk is consumed.

The industry has allies among school officials involved in planning and preparing school meals, who fear limiting chocolate milk will cause children to drink less milk, limiting their intake of calcium and other nutrients.

Jessica Gould, director of nutritional services for Littleton Public Schools in Colorado, said her school district’s milk consumption dropped significantly as she had trouble getting chocolate milk during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Do we want children to get the calcium, protein, additional nutrients that are part of milk? she asked. Because when we only provided white milk, we saw that a significant amount of students didn’t take milk in general.

The USDA is required by law to set standards for the food and beverages served to school-age children. It’s a hot topic with parents and other concerned adults. Around 90,000 comments have been received since the new guidelines for school menus were proposed in February. Guidelines include gradually reducing the salt content of school meals.

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