by Marion Nestle
Nov 15 2011

Ketchup is a vegetable? Again?

Food Chemical News (FCN) reports today that the USDA has sent its final rules on nutrition standards for school lunches and breakfasts to the Office of Management and Budget for approval.  The final content of what got submitted is not known.

These rules, you may recall from previous posts, are based on recommendations of the Institute of Medicine in a 2009 report on School Meals.

Several of the USDA’s proposals for implementing these suggestions have elicited more than the usual level of fuss.  The most controversial:

  • Limits on starchy vegetables to two servings a week.  As I noted a few days ago, the Senate passed an amendment to the USDA’s appropriations bill to block any restrictions on potatoes.  Most observers think this means that unlimited potatoes will stay in the school meals.
  • Preventing tomato paste on pizza from counting as a vegetable.  According to FCN, language in the appropriations bill “also stipulates that tomato paste used to make pizzas can be counted toward the weekly total of vegetable servings.”

Does the Senate think this can pass the laugh test?

Historical note:  Remember when the Reagan administration proposed to allow ketchup to count as a vegetable in school meals:

An additional proposed change in crediting policy would allow vegetable and fruit concentrates to be credited on a single-strength reconstituted basis rather than on the basis of the actual volume as served.

For example, one tablespoon of tomato paste could be credited as 1/4 cup single-strength tomato juice.  Previously, it was only credited as 1 tablespoon, the volume as served (Federal Register 9-4-81).

Meaning ketchup!

The press had a field day.  The  ensuing bipartisan hilarity and what Nutrition Action (November 1981) called a “maelstorm of criticism from Congress, the press, and the public alike” induced the USDA to rescind the rules one month later.

  • The Washington Post (9-26-81) quoted the budget director’s comment that USDA “not only has egg on its face, but ketchup too.”
  • Republican Senator John Heinz (whose company owns Heinz ketchup) said “Ketchup is a condiment.  This is one of the most ridiculous regulations I ever heard of, and I suppose I need not add that I know something about ketchup and relish–or did at one time.”
  • The New York Times (9-28-81) noted that “Democrats are still chortling at what they hail as ‘the Emperor’s New Condiments’—the attempt to declare ketchup a school-lunch vegetable.”

Times have changed.  Senators used to have the health of American school children in mind.  Now, they undermine efforts by USDA to improve meals for kids.

The Senate’s action has nothing to do with public health and everything to do with political posturing and caving in to lobbyists.

The Senate should reconsider its actions.  The USDA should not back down on this one.

Additions, November 17: background documents and additional links

  • Good post Marion! I really hope the USDA doesn’t back down either!!!

  • The solution? Send your kids to school with a healthier, home packed lunch! I haven’t yet seen the kind of changes to school lunch that would have me recommending them to my clients. Vegetable servings aside, the calories remain excessive for most kids who are not on the track team.

  • Michael Bulger


    Many families in this country rely on the National School Lunch Program to provide their child with free or reduced-price lunches. With the economy as it is, it’s not fair to ignore so many children.

    Forcing these kids to eat tomato sauce that consists primarily of tomato paste (mostly water, with a bit of tomato), modified food starch (to thicken it in the place of tomatoes), and cheese, is not fair. They deserve a balanced diet and the proper servings of vegetables.

    Congress is not made up of nutritionists, and should be careful dictating what many kids will have no other choice but to eat.

  • Anthro

    I agree with Lori in principle and this was my personal strategy when my kids were in school, but Michael is right. We can’t base public health efforts on our own personal practices. Poor people who qualify for reduced lunch are going to take advantage of that and not use up their food stamps on packed lunch items. Besides, some people’s idea of packing a lunch is Lunchables or chips and cookies, so unless you are already tuned in to good nutrition, packing the lunch wouldn’t make much difference.

    It is unconscionable for lawmakers to use these pathetic lobbying strategies to end up providing inadequate lunches for children. Individual school districts and parents must do better and exceed these lame standards.

  • Leslie

    “Congress is not made up of nutritionists”, says Michael Bulger…and niether is NYU, apparently. Plenty of faux-science political hucksters both places, though!

  • Chic

    I think it should be required that our senators and representatives eat only “school lunches” for their lunch while in session. With the added benefit of “all you can eat”. This should solve the problem.

  • Stephanie

    I know many people say if you have a problem with school lunches then just pack your child’s lunch. But want about the thousands of children who receive reduced or free lunch because of their parent’s limited income. Or the children who’s parents just do not have the time or the knowledge to prepare healthy meals for their children.

    I cannot believe that congress would suggest the the tomato sauce on pizza can count for a vegetable. Not only is it in a small quantity, but it has has added sugars and other ingredients that dilute it even more.

    While I do not necessarily feel that their needs to be a mandate limiting weekly use of potatoes. I think their should be something the amount of fried vegetables, and encouraging that the grains/starches be varied and at least 50% whole to start.

    We should not be telling people how to eat, and everyone has there choice. However, these are school lunches we have already been “making” these choices for children for decades. If anything it should be sociably responsible to work to make these meals as healthy as possible. Yes the typical American child wants their french fries, chicken nuggets, and pizza but
    1. These items can be prepared in ways to improve their nutritional value, and can be served with healthier sides.
    2. They may grow to like healthier foods if they are only exposed to them.
    I remember as a child I absolutely hated cooked vegetables because usually I would try them at school, and they tasted like metal. But when I had them prepared somewhere else in a different matter I really enjoyed them (even as a child)

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  • Audrey Horne

    That’s disgusting. Tomatoes are fruit anyway.

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  • Jill

    Why wouldn’t tomato paste be considered a vegetable? Even a tablespoon provides a wonderful balance (though small amounts) of nutrients for only 13 kcals. Of course we can not consider one tablespoon to be equivalent 1/2 C of vegetables, but it is very equivalent to 1/4 C of tomato juice.

    One Tablespoon of tomato paste provides more protein and less saturated fat, more of most minerals and finally similar or more for some vitamins and less for others than 1/4 C of tomatoes juice.

    Find out yourself at the following link.

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  • Michael Bulger


    The minerals and vitamins are not the main concern here. Those come from many different sources in the American diet. We should be comparing paste to unprocessed vegetables, rather than juice.

    If we just compare canned tomato sauce or raw tomatoes to tomato paste we find the following. (Please note that these food components have been established as areas of concern in the American diet.)

    Per 100g

    Calories: Tomato paste – 89; Tomato sauce – 29; Tomato, raw – 18
    Sodium (mg): Tomato paste – 790; Tomato sauce – 11; Tomato, raw – 5
    Sugar (g): Tomato paste – 12.18; Tomato sauce – 4.25; Tomato, raw – 2.63

    Americans are facing an obesity epidemic. People are suffering from type 2 diabetes, CVD, stroke, and other negative health outcomes. Scientific bodies agree that American children have a diet that is too high in sodium, added sugar, and unnecessary calories.

    This is putting children at risk for a host of conditions which burden society and lessen their longevity and quality of life. This is incredibly unfortunate for these young children, who have less control over their own food decisions and are more easily influenced by industry marketing campaigns.

    If we are serious about creating a healthy food environment and enabling children to eat balanced diets, we need to stop giving them tomato paste in place of whole or minimally-processed vegetables.

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  • Kris

    How can ketchup be a vegetable if a tomato is a fruit?

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