Michelle Obama's "healthy" juice doesn't meet school nutrition standards

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

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

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Bloomberg published an extensive report about Obama’s latest venture and its products. I would provide specific excerpts but it’s behind a paywall. Obama wants to sell an alternative to soda. The juice is targeted for children ages 6 and up. The company would likely not qualify to supply its juice for school lunch programs, the very ones with nutritional requirements she forced upon public schools across the country. Those guidelines require school lunch drinks to be milk, water, or 100 percent juice since 2014.

The drinks, which come in four flavors, have no added sugar, are rich in fiber, and contain 75 percent less sugar than ‘leading fruit juices’, making them a far more appealing alternative to parents.

But healthcare experts have pointed out that ‘healthier’ does not necessarily mean healthy, and at the end of the day, children will still clamor for more of the sugary drinks.

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

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

Less sugar doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. Encouraging children to consume less sugar is a worthy goal. However, to market a drink as healthy that contains sugar is a little sketchy, if you ask me. PLEZI juice has no added sugar but it 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 daily recommended amount of vitamin C. Some experts say she should not be selling ‘ultra-processed’ sugary drinks to very young children.

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Jerold Mande, an adjunct professor of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and CEO of Nourish Science, a nonprofit focused on nutrition, told Bloomberg: ‘She has been ill-served by advisers who convinced her to start by targeting 6- to 12-year-olds with a flashy, ultra-processed beverage that may not be any healthier than diet soda.’

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

Michelle Obama’s expertise about what children will and will not eat (or drink) should be questioned anyway. Her makeover of school lunch nutrition produced huge amounts of wasted food and children not eating lunch. While her less sugary juice is meant to change the taste of young children so that they don’t gravitate to soda, if children don’t like the taste of food, they won’t eat it. Growing children need to eat lunch so they can keep alert and able to learn in school. Michelle Obama has no particular education in nutrition. I can appreciate her interest as a mother who raised children but she wouldn’t necessarily be looked upon as an expert if she was not a former first lady.

This comes at a time when the food police are trying to get flavored milk out of schools. They are coming for your child’s chocolate milk. New standards for school meals will soon be adopted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a ban on flavored milk is being considered. No more chocolate, strawberry, or other varieties of milk would be allowed if a ban goes into effect. Only white milk. The concern over sugar consumption is behind a potential ban.

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

The issue has divided parents, child-nutrition specialists, school-meal officials and others. Supporters of restricting flavored milk say it has added sugars that contribute to childhood obesity and establish 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 has nine essential nutrients in it and say, ‘You can’t drink this, you have to drink plain’?” 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 in order to get the kids to drink milk. Children who turn up their noses at white milk will drink a flavored milk. The USDA is between a rock and a hard place on the subject.

The USDA proposed guidelines for school meals earlier this year, but held off making a recommendation on flavored milk, most of which is chocolate.

“Flavored milk is a challenging issue to figure out exactly the best path forward,” Cindy Long, administrator of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, said, explaining why the agency is weighing two options. “We really do want to encourage children to consume milk and we also recognize the need to reduce added-sugar consumption.”

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The USDA is considering excluding flavored milk for elementary and maybe middle schools but continue to offer it in high schools. Or it may continue to offer it to all grade levels.

The dairy industry is working to keep flavored milk in schools. Less sugar in those milk options will likely be a requirement if they remain 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 worry that restricting chocolate milk will cause children to drink less milk, curbing their intake of calcium and other nutrients.

Jessica Gould, the director of nutrition services for Littleton Public Schools in Colorado, said that her school district’s consumption of milk “significantly decreased” when it experienced problems procuring chocolate milk during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Do we want kids to get the calcium, the protein, the additional nutrients that are part of milk?” she asked. “Because when we were only providing white milk, we did see a significant amount of students didn’t take milk in general.”

The USDA is required by law to set standards for food and drinks served to school children. It’s a hot topic with parents and other concerned adults. About 90,000 comments have been received since new school menu guidelines were proposed in February. The guidelines include gradually lowering the salt content in school meals.

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John Sexton 10:40 PM | June 24, 2024
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