UConn research shows food companies aren't meeting USDA standards

Companies that make Cheetos, Doritos and Fruit by the Foot had the opportunity to reformulate their snacks to make them healthier, but students and parents doubt the legitimacy of their claims. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

Unhealthy snack food brands are reformulating their recipes to meet U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards in order to place their products in schools. However, students and parents believe that these snacks are not much healthier, according to research from the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

In September 2015, the USDA issued new standards for snacks served in schools which included more whole grains and less fat and sodium, according to the USDA’s website.

“Companies such as Cheetos, Doritos and Fruit by the Foot, saw this as an opportunity to reformulate popular snacks to sell them in schools,” Jennifer Harris, lead author of the study and director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center, said.

The snacks have less sugar, sodium and fat, and are packaged in bags similar to that of the original products. These reformulated snacks are only sold in schools. Only the original recipes can be found in stores, Harris said.

The purpose of the new USDA standards was to introduce healthier foods into school systems, not necessarily to have snack foods reformulate their brands, Harris said.

In Harris’ study, she sampled two groups of people - parents of middle school aged students, and students 13 to 17- years-old - to see if they believed these reformulated snacks were healthy.

Harris introduced them to four different sets of snacks: the original snacks found in stores, the reformulated brands with similar packaging, a completely new packaging and a brand of health snacks.

“The reason we did this study was because we heard from a lot of advocates that after the new USDA rules went into effect there seemed to be very few changes,” Harris said. “The vending machines looked the same as in previous years.”

The participants could not taste the difference between the original brand and the reformulated brand, Harris said, and they only thought the look alike snack was slightly healthier.

“The sample (of participants) believed that schools who sold the look alike (reformulated) snacks were less concerned about the health and wellbeing of their students,” Harris said. “Schools need credibility when it comes to health, and this undermines their message.”

It takes a long time to change the USDA standards in schools, as the standards introduced in 2015 came after a five-year-long process, Harris said.

Instead of trying to change USDA standards, Harris suggested that school districts create higher standards for their wellness policies. These policies about nutrition and physical activity in schools can be changed much easier within each school district.

“It’s important to have healthy snacks in schools because healthy eating habits are developed at a young age,” Marc Ross, fifth semester nutritional sciences major, said.


Emma Krueger is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at emma.krueger@uconn.edu.