Eat Your Veggies Now Means
Gorge on Pizza and French Fries
Pity the poor tomato. It gets no respect from the government.
For over a century the United States government has made some lofty decisions about the tomato. In 1893 the distinguished judges on the US Supreme Court decided to become botanists when they unanimously ruled the tomato is a vegetable in the famous Nix v. Hedden case.
Because the US government had a tariff on imported vegetables but not fruit, the justices wisely affirmed in a unanimous decision that although tomatoes were technically a fruit of a vine, they were a vegetable because of the way they were used.
In his opinion for the court, Justice Horace Gray wrote, "Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert."
Fast-forward almost 90 years and we find another government agency, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), making ridiculous rulings. In 1981 the USDA reclassified ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables, not condiments. They reasoned that since ketchup contains tomatoes, it is obviously a vegetable. The principal reason for the reclassification was the Reagan administration's desire to trim $1 billion from the school lunch program and still maintain the nutritional requirements that required servings of cooked or fresh vegetables. A public outcry caused the Reagan administration to back away from this move.
Wise Supreme Court decisions never die. They just keep recycling. Citing the Nix v. Hedden decision, New Jersey tomato lovers introduced the momentous Assembly Bill No. 353 in the New Jersey State Assembly to designate the Jersey Tomato as the official state vegetable. Fortunately for the people of that state, this important bill has been lost in the sauce of the Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee since January 2008.
Pizza is now a vegetable
At the urging of the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, the USDA sought to improve the standards for student-subsidized meals in the schools as part of the National School Lunch Program. One USDA proposal was to prevent two tablespoons of tomato paste (the amount usually on a serving of pizza) to be classified as a serving of vegetable. The USDA wanted at least a half-cup of tomato sauce to achieve a single vegetable serving. The half-cup of tomato sauce, too much for one pizza slice, would encourage schools to offer more nutrient-dense options like soup, chili, and pasta.
With a half-cup serving in effect, the frozen pizza industry would suffer a tremendous blow. In the 52 weeks ending April 16, 2011 frozen pizza sales in the United States totaled $4.02 billion dollars. Instead of tears streaming down on their pizzas, the pizza pushers dispatched their lobby locusts to Washington to successfully perpetuate their pizza paradise in the schools.
How many Congressman does it take to find a whole grain?
Congress, no doubt influenced by refined lobbyists, is requiring the USDA to define "whole grains" before regulating them. Most likely our esteemed legislators will not approve the USDA's definition after listening to arguments by the food industry that has a powerful, but not always wise, influence on nutrition standards.
Excess sodium in school lunches is another health concern, but the sodium in that pizza will face no threatened decrease. Any attempt by the USDA to place a limit has been thwarted by Congress that is recommending more study on the long-term effects of sodium reduction requirements. Don't we already have scientific evidence that clearly demonstrates the need for sodium reduction? Aren't members of Congress reading the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation that people reduce sodium intake to 1500 milligrams or less per day?
A high school lunch currently clocks in at 1600 milligrams of sodium. The USDA plan was to lower this amount to 740 milligrams over the next decade and to decrease it to 710 milligrams for middle school, and 640 milligrams in elementary schools.
The USDA's 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise limiting daily sodium to 2,300 mg. That's equal to one teaspoon of salt. These dietary guidelines are stricter for about half of the US population. Many people 51 or older who have high-blood pressure, chronic kidney disease or diabetes, or are African American should consume no more than 1,500 milligrams daily.
French fries, not a starch, but a vegetable
This effort to limit potatoes was blocked when senators from potato-growing states registered their disapproval. For now those oily fries will continue to be a vital mainstay on school menus. The USDA is responsible for a 2003 ruling that batter-coated French fries could be considered a fresh vegetable. The Frozen Potato Products Institute appealed to the USDA saying that rolling potato slices in a starch coating, frying them and freezing them is the same as waxing a cucumber or sweetening a strawberry.
Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee said the changes in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines will "prevent overly burdensome and costly regulations and provide greater flexibility for local school districts to improve the nutritional quality of meals."
Food industry wins school lunch battle
The food industry has won the school lunch battle with dollars to purchase votes in Congress while society is losing the war to fight chronic diseases caused by poor nutrition. Too bad there are no lobby groups to buy votes to include more fruits and vegetables in the school lunch program.
Meanwhile, we citizens are not voicing our protest but are allowing our government to decide whether the tomato is a fruit or vegetable and whether sodium-loaded, non-whole-grain pizza will stand beside the tomato to become the newest vegetable dished out as a school lunch entrée. Would you pass the greasy French fries, please?