Jumping Hoops

by Charlotte Atchley
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Lisa Newmann founded Cookiehead Snacks, Housatonic, MA, in 2007 with the idea to revolutionize American snacking. Cookiehead’s cookies, brownies and muffins are formulated on sound science without sacrificing taste by using naturally healthful ingredients such as whole grains, seeds, nuts, dark chocolate and fruit. A graduate of Bard College and the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, Ms. Newmann opened her first baking business in 1980, selling it to an international baking company in 1985. Before founding Cookiehead, she successfully ran several other bakeries and production facilities in the Northeast US. Ms. Newmann has also done work as a food business consultant.

This summer, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) ­issued its final interim rule Smart Snacks in Schools — guidelines intended to help schools provide healthy snack options for students throughout the school day. USDA will accept comments on these guidelines through Oct. 28, and even companies providing nutritionally responsible snacks may have some things to say about the new dietary restrictions in US schools.

In this exclusive Q&A with Baking & Snack, Ms. Newmann addresses some of the difficulties bakers now face in creating baked foods and snacks that meet nutritional needs in the school cafeteria.

Baking & Snack: How are the new school lunch guidelines from the USDA affecting companies wanting to supply baked foods to school cafeterias?

Lisa Newmann: The new school lunch guidelines are a positive sign that our government recognizes how essential it is to offer healthy, strengthening food in school. This action brings to light the need for nutritionally responsible snacks made with real food. The guidelines likely present a challenge to manufacturers that do not currently take into account the impact their products have on the bodies of growing children. However, it does help them learn and reconsider their product offerings.

As a nutritious-snack company, what are the specific challenges Cookiehead has faced trying to supply schools?

Ironically, this approach fails to factor in crucial distinctions such as nutritious vs. empty calories and “good fats” compared with fats that may conform to guideline numbers but offer little or no ­nutritional value. The authors of the guidelines have painted snack foods with one brush. A numeric and quantitative approach is ­essential, but when it comes to nutrition, the numbers must measure more than calories to give a full picture of the impact certain ingredients have on consumers’ physiology. 

When Cookiehead develops products, the team looks at how our food supports a person’s ability to learn, make decisions, sustain energy and exercise. For example, the impact of whole grains on our health and well-being has been documented and publicized. Whole grains fill us up, reduce the chance of heart disease and cancer, and offer slow, steady energy to get us through the day alert and responsive.

Which of the new nutritional guidelines are problematic for Cookiehead and other nutritionally responsible companies?

For Cookiehead, it’s the guidelines’ black-and-white approach to calories. While we do encourage people to eat fruits and vegetables before indulging in cookies, we create snack foods with calories containing significant nutritional value in each bite. Our snacks are designed to satisfy taste buds as well as nutritional requirements. But nutritious ingredients such as nuts and berries and seeds add calories. Along with those calories, they deliver long lasting, steady — rather than spiked — energy to children of all ages. It is healthier to consume two of our small cookies than a 100-Cal pack of nutrient-free snacks. Cookiehead cookies are also made with portion control in mind. A small cookie provides enduring satiety so people can satisfy their hunger and cravings with fewer of our cookies rather than continuously reaching for more of those empty-calorie snacks.

Consumers who are making a transition from empty calories to healthier choices tend to be more successful when they embrace a gradual shift into the awakening power that comes from a balanced diet.

What values do these guidelines have for students, schools and food companies?

These guidelines help organizations develop programs and products that offer more healthful alternatives. However, because of the emphasis on calories instead of balance, they are over-simplified, allowing consumers to think they are making healthy choices when they are still locked in unhealthy patterns.

 While I understand the need for simplicity, I feel it is important to consider nutritional science before defining “simple.” All calories are not created equal. The reference point should come from the current wealth of scientific evidence, which demonstrates the difference between a whole grain snack and a white flour option.

Why is USDA focusing on these nutrition points?

It is essential for USDA to start somewhere. First Lady Michelle Obama has done wonders in terms of raising awareness of the importance of fresh, healthy food and the need to reverse the epidemics of obesity and diabetes. There have been many complex pathways to this unhealthy state of our union, which will likely take at least a generation to unravel. Cookiehead ­addresses this problem by providing real-food snacks that deliver lots of energy. 

When regulating school nutrition, what are other areas USDA could focus on?

I would like to see USDA work with other government institutions to guide education both by teaching the reasons for healthy food habits in the classroom and reinforcing those lessons with examples of real-food choices in the school cafeteria.

Healthy food choices lead to healthy students. When we integrate talk of healthy ingredients with lesson plans, our society teaches children to be responsible for their own health, well-being and nourishment. I would also teach students about the effect of natural, whole grain ingredients on their well-being. Beyond the programs inspired by Alice Waters with her Edible Schoolyard programs, we need to build nutritional awareness into the curriculum of every school. Let’s educate parents by showing the clear correlation between childhood dietary choices and healthy adult living.

In an ideal world, our schools would base their food purchasing decisions on the most beneficial, affordable, healthy meals that can be offered to students. They would back up those decisions by teaching the science of nutrition and insisting on rigorous physical education.

Let’s make it fun. I’ll teach the first class.                       

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