We’ve talked here before about so-called “copycat snacks” in schools, i.e., highly processed foods such as snacks, pizza and breakfast cereals which bear all the same logos and brand names as their supermarket or restaurant counterparts, but which have been nutritionally tweaked to comply with the USDA’s “Smart Snacks” rules for competitive food or the new school meal regulations.
Food manufacturers benefit from copycat snacks in two ways: (1) direct profits from their sale in schools, and (2) the less tangible but highly valuable benefit of getting their brands in front of impressionable children on a daily basis. And schools offer these products because they’re popular with kids, which may boost a la carte sales and/or meal participation.
But, quoting from my 2014 post, here’s why they’re a problem:
First, [the sale of copycat snacks] impedes efforts to redirect kids toward the fresh, whole foods that would better serve their longterm health. Second, children have no clue that the branded foods being served in the cafeteria are somehow “better” than the standard formulation of those foods, so they continue to receive the implicit message that items like Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (whole-grain rich or otherwise) and Domino’s pizza (ditto) are acceptable, daily lunch fare. And that’s a terribly destructive lesson that may never be unlearned.
Now a new study to be published today in the journal Childhood Obesity lends scientific support to these concerns over copycat snacks.
Conducted by the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, the study involved an online experiment with 659 students aged 13 to 17 and 859 parents of children aged 10 to 13. The participants viewed information about a hypothetical school that sold either look-alike Smart Snacks, regular versions of the same brands sold in stores, Smart Snacks in redesigned packages, or only brands whose regular products met Smart Snacks standards. According to a press release from the Rudd Center, copycat snacks did nothing but confuse both parents and kids:
Specific findings of the study include:
- Students and parents rated the healthier look-alike Smart Snacks similarly in taste, healthfulness and purchase intent as the store versions, while considering Smart Snacks in different packages to be healthier but less tasty.
- Most participants inaccurately believed they had seen look-alike Smart Snacks for sale in stores.
- Participants also rated schools offering the look-alike Smart Snacks and the store versions of the brands as less concerned about students’ health and well-being.
When the USDA finalized its wellness policy rules last month, it declined to address copycat snacks even though the issue was raised by a number commenters. (Because districts must now ban on-campus junk food marketing in their wellness policies, these commenters had argued that copycat snacks constitute a form of such marketing and should therefore also be banned.)
But even though the USDA didn’t address the issue, individual districts and schools can still ban the sale of copycat snacks via their wellness policies or otherwise. Today’s Rudd Center study supports the case for doing so.
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