Last Tuesday, PepsiCo Inc announced that it would remove calorie-laden drinks from school canteens in more than 200 countries — including India — by 2012. This month, Coca-Cola Co too, changed its global sales policy that it will not sell its drinks worldwide in primary schools unless school districts ask for them.
Both are welcome moves, even though they’ve come late — the two cola majors stopped selling sugary drinks in US schools since 2006 under pressure to reduce childhood obesity, which can lead to lifestyle diseases later. Public health activists hope that other companies selling high-calorie foods are pressured to make similar moves, especially in developing countries with fewer restrictions and lower health awareness.
Apart from exceptions such as The Shri Ram School and Sardar Patel Vidyalaya in Delhi and Gurgaon, junk food finds favour in most schools. With menus designed to give nutritionists apoplexy attacks, school administrations seem immune to the irony of students gorging on oily samosas after listening to their teachers preach the importance of nutritious food.
In the past, even directives from the Directorate of Education asking schools to stop serving junk food and come up with healthier options have failed to have an impact. The excuses were many. Some schools claimed the government did not define ‘junk’ or list healthier options. The jury is still out. The fact is that unlike frozen food, commercially-made samosas are healthier as they are fried in oil that is reheated countless times. Cell-damaging free radicals are released when vegetable oils are heated at high temperatures, which increase cancers risk. Other by-products formed by reheating oils are trans-fatty acids, which can be more fatal for the heart than the banned saturated fats, reports a US study in the New England Journal of Medicine. Cooking in oil that has been heated for hours also increases cancer risk, says the American Cancer Society, which estimates that up to one-third of the cancer deaths in the US are caused by poor nutrition. Olive and canola oils are the least susceptible to oxidation, but these expensive to be used in restaurants. Unlike at home where the same oil is not heated many times, food deep-fried in restaurants invariably absorbs the damaging fat it was cooked in.
What the issue boils down to is whether schools are ready to practice what they preach by giving students healthy options. And they need to package the yoghurt smoothies, idlis and fresh lemonade with wholesome messaging. While most teens may not care about a heart attack 30 years later, most would happily trash the cola and hamburger for clearer skin or a 26-inch waist!