Forget About the Pizza, What About the Sodium?

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011
This post was written by Cheryl Miller

Pizza is not a vegetable.

That’s the word from the American Heart Association (AHA) on Congress’s much publicized perceived push for pizza to move to the top of the school lunchroom’s food pyramid, a decision sure to disappoint children everywhere.

But reports have since shown that what Congress actually did was to maintain that the tomato paste in pizza sauce is a concentrated form of tomatoes, and should be counted as such. So that an eighth of a cup of tomato paste, the amount often used in a serving of pizza, should be considered equivalent to a half cup of vegetables. According to a recent article by Sarah Kliff in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) did not want to credit a volume of fruits or vegetables that was more than the actual serving, and Congress blocked this.

The USDA’s proposed changes were the first changes in 15 years to the $11 billion school lunch program, according to USDA officials, as cited in an article in the New York Times, and were meant to reduce childhood obesity by adding more fruits and green vegetables to lunch menus.

And while no one can debate the benefits of tomatoes, Kliff’s article goes on to compare the nutritional facts of tomato paste, no salt added, with fresh fruits, and they appear similar, except for the sodium, where tomato paste outweighs the fruit by 33 mg to 1 mg.

And so the real culprit here is not Congress or even pizza, but the amount of sodium in foods, and whether or not it should be regulated.

Sodium has been proven to cause cardiovascular (CV) disease, a relationship recently reaffirmed by the CDC. And CV disease keeps increasing, according to the CMS: “Heart disease causes one of every three American deaths and constitutes 17 percent of overall national health spending, costing $444 billion every year in medical costs and lost productivity in Americans.”

The statistics for diabetes, a preventable disease often caused by poor lifestyle and unhealthy eating, are equally staggering: 78,000 children develop type 1 diabetes every year. The problem is so severe that the United Nations recently held its annual summit on non-communicable diseases, namely cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, CV disease and diabetes. It was the second of its kind to focus on a global disease issue; the first health-related UN Summit addressed AIDs.

And according to a recent study from the Commonwealth Fund, 32 percent of children ages 10 to 17 are overweight or obese.

So, given the amount of calories, fat and sodium in the pizza that contains the pizza sauce that contains the tomato paste, one of the last things our school kids need is more pizza in their diets.

What they do need is to be offered the tools to learn and make independent decisions not only outside the classroom, but inside the classroom as well, and the lunchroom is a good place to start.

But if Kliff is right, the lunchroom just might be the last place for kids to get a good education.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture writes guidelines for what school meals should look like, few schools actually follow them. Just 20 percent of schools served meals that met federal guidelines for fat content, according to a 2007 USDA audit.

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