School meal strategies

by Jeff Gelski
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Simply put, school meals this year need more whole grains and less sodium. Finding ways to entice students to eat these foods is complicated but some items, like pizza and breakfast sandwiches, may offer ways to solve both tasks.

To qualify for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s lunch program this year, schools were expected to modify menus and recipes to reduce the sodium content of school lunches by about 5% to 10% from their baseline of two years ago. Schools also must offer only whole grain-rich products starting this school year. To qualify as whole grain-rich, all grains and bread in school meal programs must contain at least 50% whole grain meal and/or flour with the remaining grains being enriched.

Pizza might serve as an entry way to healthier fare.

“You can put anything on pizza, and kids will eat it,” said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for the Whole Grains Council, Boston.

They still may complain, though. Data showed 47% of schools offered regular pizza and 85% offered healthier pizza in 557 U.S. public elementary schools in the second half of the 2012-13 school year, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Boise State University. Perceived complaints were higher at schools not offering regular pizza.

“Student complaints were not associated with the availability of healthier pizza, just the absence of regular pizza, suggesting possible pushback as a consequence of changing menu options,” the researchers said.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provided research support for the study, which appeared in the August issue of Childhood Obesity.

Some schools in the study offered healthier versions of pizza by using low-fat cheese and vegetables instead of meat for toppings and whole grain crusts.

Domino’s Pizza offers a Smart Slice pizza for school food service. Its crust is 51% white whole wheat flour with 24 grams of whole grain per serving. The pepperonis contain 33% less fat and 50% less sodium than traditional pepperoni. The mozzarella cheese has half the fat and 100 mg less sodium than regular mozzarella. The sauce has 35% less sodium than traditional pizza sauce.

“Pizza is a multi-component meal: crust, cheese, sauce, meat topping and vegetables,” said Barbara Bufe Heidolph, director of commercial development and applications research for Innophos, Cranbury, N.J. “One must not focus on just one component to achieve sodium reduction targets but rather consider all components. This will allow for maintenance of quality expectations and food safety.”

Reaching the U.S.D.A.’s July 1, 2022, sodium reduction goals, which range from 640 mg to 740 mg per school lunch meal, will be a challenge, she said. Commercially available slices of pizza at quick-service restaurants are as high as 1,200 mg of sodium per slice, she said.

“Sodium-containing ingredients can be found in all pizza components: chemical leavening agents in the dough, phosphates and preservatives in meat toppings, and salts in cheese and tomato sauces,” said Janice Johnson, Ph.D., food applications leader for Cargill Salt. “For many of these ingredients there are non-sodium versions that can be used with some success.”

Potassium chloride, such as Cargill’s FlakeSelect brand, may replace functional roles of salt in meat toppings and cheese, she said. Higher levels of substitution might lead to a bitter or metallic taste, though.

Jungbunzlauer offers sub4salt, which allows for sodium reduction in meat products in both whole muscle and emulsified types, said John F. Reidy, market development manager. Sodium reduction of 35% is possible in many meat products. Sub4salt cure combines sodium nitrite with Jungbunzlauer’s sub4salt. Potassium salts have been shown to partially replace the sodium-containing emulsifying salts in process cheese, he said.

When adding whole grain to pizza crust, formulators should remember a darker color may not appeal to students, said Colleen Zammer, director of product marketing for Bay State Milling, Quincy, Mass.

“Their taste buds are in their eyeballs,” she said.

Bay State Milling offers Easy GrAin pizza crust, a blend that is 53% whole grain on flour basis. It is produced with Bay State Milling’s GrainEssentials extra fine white whole wheat flour, which results in a lighter crust color and milder flavor profile when compared with traditional whole wheat, according to the company.

Ardent Mills, Denver, offers Ultragrain whole wheat flour for use in such school food items as pizza, pasta, hamburger buns, muffins and breaded chicken nuggets, said Don Trouba, director of marketing.

“The simplest and best way to add more whole grains to all types of school foods is to appeal to students’ preferences, which are most often associated with traditional versions of foods made with white flour,” he said. “Foods made with Ultragrain whole wheat flour, for example, have been shown in studies to have student liking scores that match or exceed their white flour counterparts, thanks to Ultragrain’s smooth texture, light color and mainstream taste.”

Buns or biscuits?

A lighter color also may be appealing in whole grain-rich bread, buns or biscuits in breakfast sandwiches. Formulators should know biscuits tend to have more sodium.

“Biscuits typically have a chemical leavening system, which is where most of the sodium in a biscuit is coming from compared to a bun that is yeast leavened with added salt being the majority of the sodium source,” Mr. Reidy said. “This makes reducing sodium in a biscuit more difficult as the leavening system has a lot of functionality in the product.”

Dr. Johnson said biscuits contain 995 mg of sodium per 100 grams whereas a typical hamburger bun contains 500 mg per 100 grams, according to the U.S.D.A. National Nutrient Database.

“Buns tend to be more light and airy, and soak up liquids differently than a biscuit, which tends to be dense, tender and have a signature taste,” Dr. Johnson said. “Therefore, when considering the design of the breakfast sandwich, the sensory attributes of the finished product must be considered to maintain consumer acceptance.”

Many biscuits, especially frozen biscuits, are made with sodium acid pyrophosphate (SAPP), Ms. Heidolph said.

Innophos offers Cal-Rise calcium acid pyrophosphate (CAPP)/monocalcium phosphate (MCP) that may replace SAPP and reduce sodium levels by as much as 25%.

Sodium may be found in the meat, too.

“Typical meat formulations used in breakfast sandwiches contain a variety of sodium-containing ingredients, which may include acetates, lactates, phosphates, monosodium glutamate, salt and seasonings,” Dr. Johnson said.

Several non-sodium preservatives are potassium-based, she said.

Sodium is functional in food products as a flavor enhancer, chemical leavening agent and preservative, said Janice Best, director, product development and technical solutions, Canada, for Ardent Mills. Sodium also plays a critical role in the texture of bakery products, cheese and meat proteins.

“School food service directors are challenged with balancing this sodium reduction along with providing food for students that is appetizing, appealing, healthy, nutritious and affordable,” she said. “Reducing sodium requires a holistic approach, including supplier partnerships for reformulation, education for staff, students and parents as well as community participation.”
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