School officials are angling for more nutritious meals; Some South Texas districts may soon fortify fatty lunch fare with healthy fish oil to lure kids, but critics aren’t biting

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Forget “Would you like fries with that?” In some Texas schools, the question might soon be: “Would you like fish oil with that?”

Last week, Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs announced new rules aimed at making school lunches healthier – in part by cutting back on fatty fare such as french fries.

But a group of South Texas school districts isn’t planning on getting rid of old favorites like pork tamales, bacon-laced breakfast tacos and gooey nacho cheese. Instead, the districts are considering injecting the food with oil taken from a small, herringlike fish. The oil contains omega-3 fatty acids, which research has linked to positive health effects, including decreased risk of heart attacks.

Fish oil advocates say it’s a chance to make lunchtime healthier without getting rid of children’s favorite foods.

“I’d say this is a milestone,” said Margaret Lopez, who leads the child nutrition program of the Texas Education Agency’s Region I, which includes districts in the Rio Grande Valley.

But some critics aren’t sure that the fish oil isn’t a sort of snake oil.

They say the quantity of omega-3 added to foods is too small to have any health benefit. And others say they’d rather put their energies into teaching kids how to eat better than adding a bit of nutrition to fatty tamales.

“To add a healthy fat to an unhealthy food, I don’t know if that makes the food better,” said Stacy Kennedy, a clinical nutritionist at Boston’s Dana Farber Cancer Institute. “Why do we need to disguise and manipulate it? Why are we sneaking it in?”

This fish tale highlights a bigger issue: How much meddling should schools do with the food they serve? And how difficult is it to get kids to eat healthier foods?

The story began with two Texas companies: Houston-based Omega Protein Corp., one of the nation’s largest fish oil producers, and Mercedes-based H&H Foods, a meat processor that is one of the Southwest’s largest school lunch suppliers. (H&H is owned by the Hinojosa family, including U.S. Rep. Rub?n Hinojosa.)

Omega Protein Corp. gets its fish oil from menhaden, a small filter-feeding fish that resembles the herring and lives in Atlantic and Gulf waters. (Menhaden are also used to make swine feed, marine lubricants and lipstick.) The company saw H&H – which already produces much of the meat for school lunches in Texas – as a potential partner.

The idea: Take the foods that H&H produces for schools – among them the aforementioned tacos, tamales and cheese sauce – and juice them up with fish oil, one of the best sources of omega-3.

A substantial body of research has said omega-3 can improve heart health, cleaning clogged arteries and lowering risk of heart disease. But Omega Protein also argued in promotional literature that the fatty acids can fight learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. Some studies have shown such a link, but that area of research is less well-developed, dietitians say.

“I call it the preventative maintenance solution,” said Harold Goode, Omega Protein’s director of food service. “It’s very good for brain development.”

Once the idea was hatched, H&H started mixing the products, which are made by replacing some of the saturated fats in the regular foods with the fish oil. The first results were not encouraging. “I’m not going to tell you we hit the nail on the head first time out of the box,” said Ruben Hinojosa Jr., H&H’s vice president for sales and marketing.

The cheese sauce, in particular, had consistency problems. “We told them it didn’t work,” said Mark Wallace, a purchasing specialist for Region I. “It was too oily.”

But company officials kept working at it, and after a few more tries, the taste problem faded. The foods’ “flavor profile,” to use the food service term, reached a point where the fish-oil infusions were indistinguishable from the old favorites, according to taste-testers.

The 38 school districts in the lower Rio Grande Valley buy much of their food via a cooperative run by Region I. Last month, the fishy foods were formally added to the list of foods schools could buy through the co-op.

Now all that’s left is for schools to decide to serve them.

The idea of fortifying foods to improve health value isn’t new. Adding iodine to table salt has largely ended the threat of goiter and its affiliated mental retardation in America. Federal regulations require that folate be added to most cereals to fight spina bifida.

The federal government sets nutritional requirements for school lunches, so a niche industry has grown to provide nutrition-spiked foods for campus cafeterias. H&H, for instance, already produces hamburger patties made with cherries to lower the fat content.

“We’re not saying it’s an apple. We’re not broccoli,” said Franco Harris, the retired NFL hall-of-fame running back who now owns Pittsburgh-based Super Bakery. The company produces the Super Donut, a vitamin-packed cake doughnut served by schools in all 50 states. “But if someone is going to eat a bakery product, there’s not one more nutritious than ours.”

Conflict for dietitians

But boosted foods such as the fish-oil tamale or the Super Donut cause an internal conflict in many dietitians. On one hand, there’s little doubt they’re healthier than the foods in unaltered form. On the other, though, they encourage students to think of doughnuts and nacho cheese sauce as good things to eat. Even if the cafeteria’s cheese sauce has some nutritional merit, do schools want to encourage kids to make it part of their regular diet?

“I’m not a big proponent of adding additives to any food,” said Tom Cunningham, director of food services in Garland schools. “Are we going to spoon-feed them for life, or do we teach them self-responsibility and how to eat well on their own?”

But kids’ palates don’t always crave the right foods. The Texas Department of Agriculture’s new rules require cuts in the amount of fatty food put on children’s plates, starting Aug. 1. But schools that have tried switching from deep-frying to baking or steaming have sometimes faced student backlashes.

Grilled fish, walnuts and flaxseed are hard sells for an 8-year-old. Tamales and tacos aren’t.

“If they’re going to have tamales regardless, they may as well go with omega-3 tamales,” said Priscilla Conners, a University of North Texas professor and registered dietitian.

So far, South Texas school districts aren’t sold. Several districts are still weighing whether to dive in.

Dora Pena, food services director for the Weslaco school district, said she was considering a pilot program for the new tamales. “It’s the way of the future, supplementing,” she said. “But I’m not quite sure yet. I need to study it more.”

Not unexpectedly, the boosted foods cost more. Breakfast tacos, which cost 31 cents apiece normally, cost 33 cents with omega-3. The price of a tamale goes up from 19.3 cents to 20.3 cents. But Cynthia Cardenas, director of child nutrition services in Mercedes school district, said that small increase wouldn’t be enough to affect her decision.

FDA allowance

Several officials said they’re waiting for a sign from the federal government before jumping in. The Food and Drug Administration has never set a recommended daily allowance for omega-3, as it does for vitamins and minerals. If the FDA sets a standard, it’ll be easier to support boosting omega-3 in the lunchroom, they say.

“It’s something I’m very interested in,” Ms. Cardenas said. “But we’re not serving it right away. I would like to see a seal of approval from someone else first.”

She said she’d have no problem with eating the new tamales and tacos herself. “But when you’re feeding the masses, it’s a different matter.”

Nutritionists said even with omega-3’s established benefits, a few tacos and tamales won’t be enough to make a difference. In Mercedes schools, for instance, tacos and tamales are served only about twice a month. The small amount of omega-3 in H&H’s products won’t be enough to make a difference if they’re served that rarely, Ms. Kennedy and other nutritionists said.

No matter what districts decide, it’s unlikely that any positive results would be visible in the near future.

After all, the most concrete benefit of omega-3 is a decreased risk of heart disease. While some teens have high cholesterol, heart problems generally don’t show up until much later in life – long after the South Texas fish oil debate will have come to a close.