by Marion Nestle
Jan 26 2012

Cheers for USDA’s new nutrition standards

Michelle Obama and Tom Vilsack announced new nutrition standards for school meals yesterday, to what seems to be near-universal applause (the potato growers are still miffed, according to the New York Times).

The new standards are best understood in comparison to current standards (see chart).  They call for:

  • More fruits and vegetables
  • A greater range of vegetables
  • A requirement for whole grains
  • All milk to be 1% or less
  • Only non-fat milk to be permitted to be flavored

This may not sound like much.  But given what it has taken USDA to get to this point, the new standards must be seen as a major step forward.

See, for example, the comparison of an old and new weekly menu (this has not changed since USDA’s original proposal in January last year).

The new one looks so much better.   Now it’s up to schools to make the new standards work, make the foods taste yummy, and get kids to be willing to try new foods.

To review the history: This all started when the USDA asked the Institute of Medicine to design nutrition standards that would:

  • Increase the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Set a minimum and maximum level of calories
  • Focus more on reducing saturated fat and sodium

The new standards come pretty close to what the IOM recommended (see the earlier chart), with some now-famous exceptions.  The IOM proposed limits on starchy vegetables.  USDA then proposed to limit starchy vegetables to two servings a week.  It also set a minimum for the amount of tomato sauce on pizza that could count toward vegetable servings.

Under pressure from potato growers and suppliers of school pizza, Congress weighed in and overruled the USDA on both counts.

The result: pizza now counts as a vegetable.

To give some idea of the extent of lobbying on all sides of this issue, USDA’s January proposal elicited 132,000 public comments (these are someplace at and are addressed in the Federal Register notice).

I asked in a previous post whether this kind of congressional micromanagement made sense (absolutely not, in my view).  I also wrote previously about the intense lobbying efforts to make sure these standards would never be released.

Despite congressional and industry opposition, the standards are out.

Applause is very much in order for Mrs. Obama’s leadership on this issue.

Good work.  Now let’s get busy on the next challenges:

  • Set nutrition standards for competitive foods in schools—those sold outside of the lunch program as snacks and meal replacements.
  • Teach kids where food comes from
  • Teach kids to cook

For the record:

The initial press release: It is headlined “First Lady to Announce New Nutrition Standards for Meals Served in America’s Schools: Public-Private Partnership Aims to Connect More Kids to Nutrition Programs.”  I’m not sure where the Public-Private Partnership comes into this.

USDA’s actual press announcement provides links to the Nutrition Standards home page and other relevant documents.

Additions: Dana Woldrow sends this link to shed some light on the curious business of private-public partnerships.  Here’s one where Goya foods is giving out teaching materials in schools.

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  • Margeretrc

    Yes, and I believe I called it a scientific source, as opposed to a blog, not a study. I just went back to the SA article and it also cites (first, in fact) a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “In March (2010) the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a meta-analysis—which combines data from several studies—that compared the reported daily food intake of nearly 350,000 people against their risk of developing cardiovascular disease over a period of five to 23 years. The analysis, overseen by Ronald M. Krauss, director of atherosclerosis research at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, found no association between the amount of saturated fat consumed and the risk of heart disease.” And the conclusion from the study you cite, by one of the scientists carrying out the study: “Although the subjects on the low-carb diet ate the most saturated fat, they ended up with the healthiest ratio of HDL to LDL cholesterol and lost twice as much weight as their low-fat-eating counterparts.” As you, yourself pointed out, they ate more sat fat than the SAD.
    “I was basing this on a figure for solid fats, as opposed to saturated fats. FYI, the fat in milk is a solid fat.” ??? FYI, there is not one single type of fat in milk. Milk fat, like all natural fats, is a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fats. All fats can be liquid or solid, depending on temperature, but saturated fats tend to solidify at higher temperatures than mono or polyunsaturated fats. So what is a “solid fat?” If I stick olive oil in my refrigerator, it will become a “solid fat.” On the other hand, I believe no natural fat, regardless of the level of saturation, is solid at body temperature. Even coconut oil and palm oil melt as soon as they come in contact with the body. Put a little solid coconut oil in the palm of your hand and see what happens.
    Yes, we’ve gone around and around and will, I suppose, continue to do so. Makes things interesting, no? Every day is a nice day for me. You have a nice day, too.

  • Margeretrc

    @Michael, I will check out the studies you linked, but I have a question for you to think about:
    Any children included in any of these studies you cite? We are talking about children’s dietary needs, no?

  • Judy

    While I would hardly argue that we now have anything like an ideal school lunch program, these changes are real and urgent for the millions of children who eat free/reduced lunches.

    On a related topic, I was surprised to find nothing recent in the archives about diet and ADHD in children, although there was a recent study in the Lancet on this topic that seemed very promising. Marion, any chance you might do some analysis?

  • Michael Bulger

    What are solid fats?

    Something else to think about: There can be many confounding variables that affect chronic disease. When looking at studies, we should note whether the diets were based on single-day self-reported dietary recalls with no follow-up. Peoples diets change and the AJCN study is a meta-analysis of studies that primarily measured baseline diets with no follow-up assessment. Only 5 out of 24 studies checked to see if subjects had changed their diets. The average study length was 14 years. How many people changed their diets over that time? Further, few of those studies were specific about what was eaten in place of saturated fat. We’ve already determined that other parts of the diet (i.e., refined carbs) can have a confounding effect on health outcomes.

  • Margeretrc

    So “solid fats” have more sat fat than those which are not solid at room temp. Whatever. As I said, all natural fats are a mixture of fats. Coconut and palm oil, though containing a larger % of sat fat than any other, also have mono and polyunsaturated fats. Olive oil has 14% sat fat, while lard has more monounsaturated fat than sat or poly. Beef fat and butter seem to be the only animal fats that have (slightly) more sat fat than mono and poly, but both have a significant amount of mono unsaturated fats, as does fat from chickens. That confounds the results of any study comparing different fats in the diet, whether it is RCT or observational.
    No argument with your “something to think about…” That is precisely the problem with making blanket statements about links between sat fat and disease–not to mention two important scientific principals: correlation is not causation and observational studies are only good for forming hypotheses to be tested in RCT, not for making statements about cause and effect. Even if one could establish a consistent link between sat fat consumption and CVD risk (which has yet to be done–in the Framingham study, risk of CVD went down as sat fat and cholesterol consumption went up) it doesn’t follow that consuming sat fat causes heart disease.
    I’ve seen the Springerlink study before. The overall reduction in CVD risk (emphasis on risk–they measured a risk factor, not outcome, if I read correctly) was modest, at best, and I’ve seen other studies where increased death from other causes when replacing SFA with PUFA meant that all cause mortality is basically the same in both groups–which is reasonable as PUFA and body temp. is a bad combination. They are highly reactive anyway and at body temp. will oxidize pretty much anything they come into contact with. That’s basic chemistry.
    Your link to the lipidology study only takes me to the abstract–I don’t have access to the full article–and it seems to be more a reiteration of advice than more study data. I can’t at the moment access the article at all.
    All this is very interesting and not especially new to me. I think we can agree that replacing SFA with CHO is not productive at best and possibly harmful at worst. For now we can probably agree to disagree re replacing SFA with PUFA. Time will tell whether replacing the natural fats we have been eating for most of our history with newfangled oils that require harsh processes to produce is good for our health or not. But we’re talking adults. Should we really be making dietary standards for children based on adult studies, whatever their conclusions? I think not. Children have different nutritional needs than adults, and among them is a need for sat fat and cholesterol for their growing bodies, especially their nervous system/brains. Standards that dictate reduced consumption of any nutrient vital to a growing child is a mistake IMO.

  • Michael Bulger

    After the age of 2, what evidence do you have that children need have different dietary needs than adults?

    BTW, “newfangled oils” are not the the only sources of PUFA. I think of fish, nuts, seeds, and vegetables when I think of PUFA.

  • Margeretrc

    I didn’t know I needed proof. What proof do you have that children have the same needs? They are growing, forming. Seems to me a logical assumption that they would have different nutritional requirements–at least in amounts of various macro and micronutrients–than individuals who are not.

    And you are right, fish, nuts, seeds and vegetables–as whole foods–are also sources of PUFA. I have no problem with those–or any other whole food. Unfortunately, they are also not the primary source of PUFA for most people. More likely mayonnaise, soybean oil, corn oil, margarine, etc. etc.

  • Michael Bulger

    As I’ve said before, the fact remains that cholesterol and saturated fat are manufactured by our bodies. They are not essential nutrients and overconsumption of these substances is deleterious to health. In any case, the American child certainly does not lack from their availability. Quite the opposite would be much easier to argue.

    As to PUFA sources, I guess it depends if were are talking about ALA or EPA/DHA. The conversation seems to have deviated far from the original topic of school meals. I didn’t notice anything in the nutrition standards that increased the amount of mayonnaise served to children, did you?

  • Margeretrc

    “I didn’t notice anything in the nutrition standards that increased the amount of mayonnaise served to children, did you?” No. but I’m betting they serve it–in tuna salad, egg salad, etc. But whatever. I don’t have kids in school any more, so have no idea what they are serving nowadays. But I am a retired teacher and do care.
    “…overconsumption of these substances is deleterious to health.” Well, that kind of depends on what “overconsumption” is, doesn’t it? Does anyone really know? There are many RCT–such as the A to Z diet study–comparing different diets. The LCHF diets (which are high in sat fat) come out on top every time not only in amount of weight lost, but in improvement of CVD and other health risk markers. Some cultures, such as the Massai and other hunter gatherer societies in Africa, populations in the South Pacific who eat a lot of coconut, and people in France and some other European nations who eat a traditional diet high in sat fat seem to be doing fine. And underconsumption can also deleterious if it is replaced with carbohydrates, which it usually is.
    I’m not advocating over consumption of anything. I am simply against the persistent war on fat, especially sat fat, that is going on in this nation–and has been going on for decades, to the detriment of our health. I am for a return to the traditional dietary habits involving real (whole) food that served us well for centuries, up until the time some government officials here decided they knew better, even though they didn’t.

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  • Michael Bulger

    You claim to have compared every RCT study? That is most impressive, and certainly must have consumed you for many hours. Do write up your analysis and submit for peer-review.

  • MargaretRC

    Sarcasm is usually the last resort of someone who has run out of argument. No, I didn’t and don’t claim to have personally examined every RCT. I’m familiar with the A to Z trial, having watched a video presentation by one of the scientists involved. My knowledge of others is admittedly second hand–from reading works/material by scientists/doctors who did the analyses–but you see, it really doesn’t matter about them. In science, you only need one set of reliable contradictory data to falsify an hypothesis and the A to Z diet study does that very well for the hypothesis that a diet high in sat fat causes heart disease/is harmful to health. Not to mention all the evidence from populations that eat diets high in sat fat and have low rates of heart disease.

  • Margeretrc
  • Michael Bulger

    It is less having no more argument and more having an argument with someone who doesn’t fully engage the subject. We’ve gone over the Massai example, as well as most everything else we’ve been going back and forth over.

    You seem to be very passionate about the subject. I’d suggest paying for journal access, or enrolling in a school that gives you access with your tuition. The devil, Margaret, is in the details.

  • Margeretrc

    Been to school, done that. I suppose agreeing that you are right would be “fully engaging the subject.” The devil is, indeed, in the details and there are some inconsistencies in the details that call conventional wisdom, of which you are clearly a proponent, into question. I don’t need access to every detail of every study in every journal to be able to see that–only some details and a knowledge of how science works, which I got by going to school. I don’t know how old you are, but I am old enough to know the tide is probably not going to change in my life time, but perhaps in yours. ‘Til then, have a nice life.

  • Margeretrc

    P.S. Ignoring those pesky inconsistencies will not make them go away. Perhaps you will learn that in time, as I and others who have been around the block a few times have.

  • Michael Bulger

    The fewer details you access, the more limited your ability to identify patterns and inconsistencies. I’m old enough to understand that basic concept.

  • Margeretrc

    Maybe, but if you think all swans are white, and then you see a black swan, seeing more white swans doesn’t change the fact that you can no longer say that all swans are white! I already know all swans aren’t white. You, on the other hand, don’t seem to be interested in any patterns that are inconsistent with your preconceived notions.

  • Michael Bulger

    We weren’t talking about swans, Margaret. I was well aware of the fact that all swans are not entirely white, just as all swans are not entirely black. Some are commonly understood to be black, just as some are commonly understood to be white. If you would like the opportunity to have the last word, I will concede that neither are all swans white nor does that metaphor have much relevance to our discussion.

  • Tyler

    So, just to clarify:

    Michael agrees with the USDA/FDA dietary recommendations to avoid saturated fat and eat whole grains.

    Margeret calls into question the validity of America’s fat phobia.

    But when reading Michael’s initial links… it seems the conclusions and suggestions made there agree with Margeret’s position, claiming that we need to reassess our dietary guidelines and that replacing SFA with PUFA only decrease CHD risk by a small percentage (apparently due to the biomarket of LDL and the risk correlation of high LDL and CHD, not mentioning LDL type).

    I am interested in both partys’ opinions on Taubes’ “Good Calories, Bad Calories”?

  • Michael Bulger


    The Dietary Guidelines are published through USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Although FDA is an agency within DHHS, dietary recommendations come from the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP). FDA focuses on sanitation, safety, wholesomeness, and honesty in labeling.

    Congress mandates that every five years a new report is published by USDA/DHHS. In 2010, the latest recommendations were made by a panel of 13 experts working with a larger body of researchers. This team reviewed the latest studies on diet and nutrition and compared them to previous studies. Their findings are published as the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report. It is available online, and is quite a read. If you have interest in reading all 699 pages, or would just like to read the section on fats, the report can be found here:

    Just as a warning: It is probably a much less exciting read than “Good Calories, Bad Calories”.

    Mr. Taubes is apparently quite a writer and has a healthy appetite for research. However, I think it can safely be said that the level of experience and expertise and the amount of review that he has done is not comparable to the DGAC. Nor is it as significant as the National Institutes of Health or any number of academic or professional bodies.

    The consensus from these experts is that saturated fat intake should be kept low, but that it shouldn’t be replaced by refined carbohydrates (like those is soda). Rather, foods higher in PUFA and MUFA (such as seafood, nuts, and vegetables) should be substituted for foods high in saturated fat (such as pizza, sausages, and hot dogs). Underlying this is the recommendation to balance calories consumed with physical activity in order to manage weight.

    I think many people hear the new focus on reducing the amount of refined carbs and think that this means that saturated fat is no longer an issue. Unfortunately, there are many factors that increase the risk of CHD. In my opinion, prevention policies (including school nutrition standards) should address as many risk factors as may practically be addressed.

  • Tyler

    The thing that Taubes refutes (quite thoroughly) is the lipid hypothesis, of which all of the evidence presented in the DGACR assumes is true.

    Anytime you see any reference to saturated fats and heart disease, the reason they are condemned is because of the fact that saturated fats raise LDL. The thing that is never mentioned is the size of the LDL particles, as modern research methods are pointing toward small dense LDL as being the primary indicator of cardiovascular disease risk ( ;

    And what raises sdLDL? Not saturated fat.

    So all recommendations for saturated fat avoidance are either founded on the faulty science of Keys (as Taubes refutes) or on epidemiological research that is looking to draw causation from saturated fat intake (because, obviously, that’s the cause, right?) instead of ever giving nod to inflammation causing or sdLDL promoting lifestyles or foods.

    Anytime you see polyunsaturated fats being touted over saturated fats as a recommended replacement, it is basing that recommendation off of the concept that lowering LDL decreases heart disease. No discussing of density type. If your LDL lowers and a larger percentage becomes small and dense, your risk still rises; if total LDL rises and less become small and dense, your risk for heart disease has gone down.

    And this is the thing that these doctors are missing. And this is why the saturated fat phobia is misguided, regardless of how many countless doctors are recommending against it–they’re all citing the same flawed source.

  • Margeretrc

    I liked Gary Taubes’ “Good Calories, Bad Calories” when I read it more than 6 years ago. It confirmed things I had already read by other authors and I found the science to be quite solid and well researched. Since then, I have read other works by him as well as works by several others others and I remain firmly convinced that some form of the (carbohydrate) hypothesis he has put forward will ultimately win out and the the lipid hypothesis is–or should be–dead.
    Michael, I did not assume that sat fat is off the hook because carbohydrates are on it. I find the evidence against sat fat tenuous, at best, and nonexistent at worst, independent of the evidence against carbohydrates, which is quite strong. I’ve mentioned the Massai and the French before–you seem to have dismissed them as, I don’t know, unimportant, but they’re not. If sat fat in the diet causes or raises risk of heart disease, it needs to be shown that it does so consistently. Else there could be (and must be) some other explanation for the cases where it does seem to. There are other cultures, as well, that eat a diet high in sat fat and have low incidence of heart disease. Then there’s the Israeli “paradox”( and even an American “paradox” that also need to be explained.
    Interesting about swans, and no, we weren’t discussing them. The point of the (I believe relevant) metaphor, since you seem to have missed it, is that once a hypothesis has been falsified, it’s falsified–done, dead. It is time to stop looking at the evidence for it and come up with a new hypothesis. That’s how science works.

  • Margeretrc

    And here is a lovely (not) consequence of overzealous implementation of the new guidelines: and a truly lovely commentary on this and out of control regulations in general: The standards should apply only to food served by the schools, not to food brought in from home by children. And parents should always have the right to send lunch in with their child–without any restrictions. I heard the principal of a school in Chicago banned the practice of bringing lunch from home. That is out of control regulation.

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