Have we have destroyed our children’s taste for food?

[Sorry about the confusion about the posts! I accidentally posted the text of one post under the heading of the other!]

The comments on last week’s post on some students protesting the new nutritious food guidelines for school lunches were quite lively. So I went back and tried to find some data to see if that might clarify the situation.

A fact sheet about the National School Lunch Program can be seen here. The average caloric intake for lunches under the old system was around 790 calories, so the new limit of 850 calories for grades 9-12 (700 for grades 6-8 and 650 for K-5) does not seem drastically different and are consistent with recommendations from other authoritative sources like the Mayo Clinic.

Of course, an average value means that there are some who eat way above that and it is those students who are likely to be the source of complaints that they remain hungry after the meal. Apparently high school football players can burn up to 3,000 calories per day. But as has been pointed out, students can have any number of extra helpings they want of fruits and vegetables.

What seems to be emerging is that some students simply do not like the new menu selection and are yearning for the old order. Via reader Jeff, I saw this interesting clip of chef Jamie Oliver showing elementary school children what ‘chicken nuggets’ are made of, to test if seeing with their own eyes the process by which chicken offal (which they found disgusting in its raw form) was mixed with fillers and then shaped into the familiar patties would get rid of their desire for it. You can see the outcome.

Oliver, who is from the UK, says that his experiment works well in other countries in turning children away from desiring chicken nuggets, but not in the US. So the problem may not be with the caloric limit. It may be that our food industry, with its pushing of highly salted, highly sweetened, artificially flavored and colored foods has really done a number on our idea of what constitutes tasty food so that children have learned to dislike real food and crave ersatz substitutes.

As an aside, I grew up in Sri Lanka eating ‘real’ food (by which I mean home-cooked food that used unprocessed raw materials and ingredients) because the processed food industry had not penetrated there at that time, though that is changing. When I first came to the US, I ate a lot of fast food because not only was it cheap (an important factor for a poor graduate student) but I also found it to be very tasty. But after some time, I could not eat it anymore because it would actually make me feel a little sick. That is true to this day. It seemed like my body was telling me that I had reached my quota of junk food and should give it up. Now I never eat at such places unless there is really no choice, like when I stop at highway rest areas. But even then, I try to eat the items that are the least processed. Of course, it undoubtedly helps that I can now afford to eat better.

There is no question that that high-caloric fast food fills you up for fairly low cost, and the artificial flavorings with which they are laced can make it highly appetizing for those whose bodies don’t react negatively to it. If people grow up on it, maybe they have the opposite reaction to what I had, in that it is real food that becomes unappetizing and hard to eat, and that this is what is driving the student protests.

We should also be careful that these kinds of media-savvy protests are usually driven by the most vocal and dissatisfied people and we should wait for more dispassionate surveys to see how most students feel about the new school menus. It will be interesting to see if tastes change as younger children grow up with the new school menus or whether the stuff they eat elsewhere will continue to drive their tastes. It makes me wonder if there a food version of Gresham’s law in which bad food drives out the good.


  1. Tracey says

    Mano, like you, I grew up not-in-America; as a military brat, I lived in a number of places in Asia and the Pacific, and a couple in Europe. When we came back to America at the end of my high school years, I found the high school cafeteria lunch *horrible*–inedible, really. Most of my peers felt the same. We brought our lunch most days. It’s simple and cheap to make and pack peanut-butter sandwiches, maybe some chips or cookies or god-forbid fruit. I’m not a fan of fast food either (it makes me queasy), so most days my lunch consists of a cup of yogurt, some fruit/veggie and dip, a bit of something I baked myself, or leftovers from the night before.

    I suspect this hullaballoo over school lunches is political partisan garbage–by opposing healthy food, one side of the political spectrum thinks they’re ‘winning’ against Michelle Obama’s suggestion that people eat healthier and maybe walk occasionally. I suspect if she’d adopted a literacy cause, these same people would be agitating for national illiteracy.

  2. Uncle Glenny says

    I have some on-topic comments on this shortly, but I’d like to note this weird coincidence: in the process of googling the name of the ex-gay reparative therapist from a post by lousy canuck, David Pickup, I just a couple minutes ago saw a picture of Jamie Oliver. Carrying the torch ifor the London Olympics. Running with someone named David Pickup. (Not the same one.)

  3. Mr Ed says

    I am very adventurous when it comes to food, as long as I can be fairly certain I won get food poisoning I’ll gladly try it. When my daughter was born my wife and I would some times treat ourselves to sushi the only exotic food in our area at the time. We would give her small sips of miso soup while we ate.

    This has worked out fantastically for me. While my daughters friends refuse to even consider anything other than chicken nuggets and mac&cheeese I spent two weeks traveling China with my daughter eating what ever was available.

    The industrial diet isn’t only bland and fattening it limits your ability to experience other cultures.

  4. mikey says

    I don’t know about this one. I saw this video quite some time ago, when the “pink slime” story was in the news. It seems to me that the objectionable part of the process was the use of ammonia to disinfect the scraps. Yuck. But he doesn’t do that here, he just basically is using a mechanical technique to use edible parts that are normally wasted. Isn’t waste undesirable? The fact that the kids go “Eww!” is meaningless- any parent has had their kids come into the kitchen while dinner is cooking and object to something. Onions, eww! Raw meat in general is not too pretty. Sausage, anyone? Raw egg? Octopus?

    All this is to say that I don’t think this guy presents a fair case. I don’t eat fast food or prepared food in general, and have a dietary arc similar to Prof. Singham, but am uncomfortable with the ‘it’s gross’ argument. Lots of good, healthy food is “gross” before being prepared.

  5. mikey says

    And ditto what Mr. Ed says. My three kids grew up exposed to a highly varied diet, which made a three week visit to Tanzania much less stressful than it might otherwise have been.

  6. Jared A says

    I think that I am in agreement on this one. There are good reason to deride chicken nugget style foods, so why resort to tricks?

    I am reminded of when occasionally people try to scare people out of eating gelatin by showing a colossal pile of gory bones, tendons, etc. and say “THIS IS WHAT YOU ARE EATING, ISN’T IT GROSS?!!?”

    Well, yeah, so? How else are you going to get collagen? Let’s not throw away usable materials just because it is gross. I consider myself a vegetarian, but I will continue to use animal derived collagen as long as it is being thrown out. The day people start slaughtering cattle to get at their bones is the day I will stop.

  7. Mano Singham says

    I think the point of the Oliver experiment is not that the bony parts of the chicken are necessarily bad for you. Actually, I personally enjoy the bones and gristle of chicken and other meats and can’t stand the breast and the white meat, which sounds weird, I know.

    The point is that the children thought that food they they initially viewed as disgusting became attractive when it was packaged as something they were familiar with, right before their eyes. They did not care that stabilizers, flavors, and other fillers had been added to it to make the transformation.

  8. Uncle Glenny says

    Dang, that’s how I make decent stock from scratch. I feel like a failure if it does’t gel.

  9. eigenperson says

    The problem is that chicken nuggets may be unhealthy, and may be made of stuff that kids think is “gross,” but the fruits and vegetables served up as the alternative are much worse.

    I don’t think we can expect our kids to enjoy eating mealy, tasteless, waxed orbs trying to pass for apples, or wilted week-old ex-vegetables bred to trade flavor for shelf life. That is the standard vegetarian fare in cafeterias I’ve experienced, and it is not worth eating (especially when I know I can go home and have some food — from plants or otherwise — that actually tastes good).

    On the other hand, you can say what you like about the processing of chicken nuggets, but they do retain some flavor at the end of the process.

  10. Uncle Glenny says

    As to “offal,” I happen to love scrapple and wish I could get it conveniently.

    (I find it kind of ironic that when I was growing up – I’m 56 – the vegetables (availability and selection) I take for granted now were pretty much unheard of, but something like that I could possibly get from a specialty mail order shop at a high price.)

  11. Uncle Glenny says

    Agreed on the produce.

    I have a thing about nearly all fresh apples: the texture disturbs me, much fingernails on blackboard (that would be slate for yyou youngsters).

    The only time I regularly was getting fresh fruit consistently in my diet was when I would make protein shake for breakfast – typically whey protein, OJ, some combination banana, pear, frozen berries.

  12. TaylorMaid says

    This alternet article does a fantastic job of addressing the complications of the school food systems in America. It isn’t as simple as the dichotomy of gross-healthy and tasty-junk.

    “In a perverse way, Jamie Oliver has highlighted many of the shortcomings of the U.S. food system. But it was like taking a wrecking ball to a termite-infested house to show the rot inside at the cost of smashing the structure. That he failed to meet the nutritional guidelines, went way over budget and put the school district at risk of losing federal funding is bad enough. The fact that so many children stopped drinking milk, dropped out of the program and appeared to be eating less food, strongly suggests they were worse off under his program.”


  13. Anonymouse says

    In the name of economics when I was laid off a couple of years ago, I began buying meat, eggs, veggies, etc. from a local farm. The farmer fed me if I showed up to help and gave me otherwise-unsalable veggies (ones with bruises or slight insect damage), letting my unemployment dollars stretch further.

    She also taught me how to use a crockpot and about using locally-ripened fruit/veggies, as well as economies of scale. Now I can cook a 5-pound potroast all day in the crockpot for the family and have enough leftovers for easy, quick dinners everyone likes…that actually taste good! After making my own soup, I lost my taste for stuff out of a can. I’ve roasted a chicken I had met while it was running around the yard, and made stock from the bones.

    Best of all, though, when one of the kids came back from a sleepover, he told me the parents had bought fast food, and he *didn’t like it* because it didn’t taste good.

    It’s not impossible to develop a liking for actual food.

  14. Paul W., OM says

    I think that Jamie Oliver’s “experiment” was a deceptive farce and I applaud the American schoolchildren who were not grossed out by eating supposedly “gross” parts of a chicken, such as chicken skin and connective tissue.

    Oliver was trying to reinforce and exploit stupid squeamishness about animal parts that are perfectly fine to eat in moderation.

    Once you’ve removed the feathers and shit, pretty much everything else about a chicken is perfectly edible, if not digestible, and much of the “gross” stuff—like the fatty skin, is naturally where much of the good flavor comes from.

    Americans have an obsession with muscle meat and muscle meat only, as though only the muscles were edible, and the rest should go to waste.

    That’s stupid.

    Jamie Oliver, as a professional chef, certainly knows that there’s nothing wrong with a chicken carcass after you’ve removed the major muscles—that’s exactly what he boils to extract as much good stuff as possible from it, to make yummy chicken stock. It’s not any more “gross” than muscle meat, if you have a basic clue about cooking. You typically don’t literally grind the whole thing up and strain it, but you may pound it to break the bones and achieve a similar effect, e.g., freeing the bone marrow so that it gets into the stock.)

    And you don’t skim the excess fat off the top of the stock because it’s gross, and certainly not because it isn’t yummy, or even because it’s bad for you per se. You do it because too much fat, and too much of the wrong kind of fat is bad for you, despite being quite yummifying. You leave some in because it is part of what makes yummy chicken stock yummy.

    Oliver neglects to tell the kids that what’s bad for you in that nasty old chicken skin is in the “good” muscle meat too, and is a big part of what makes muscle meat yummy. And what’s in the rest of the chicken is what makes a lot of other things yummy, like chicken soup, and lots of dishes and sauces made with chicken stock.

    Shame on Jamie Oliver for trying to make kids more squeamish about food, by lying to them, just so he can make them squeamish about certain foods, for the wrong reasons.

    Likewise about “stabilizers” and “flavor enhancers” and “coloring agents.” I use them all the time, and so does Jamie Oliver, the lying hypocrite.

    What does he think half his ingredients are for? They add color and subtler flavor and texture, and stability to other flavors, colors and textures. Think of soy sauce or miso, turmeric, seaweed, vinegars, oils, salt and pepper, egg whites, milk, mushrooms, paprika, corn starch, and pretty much any ingredient that doesn’t constitute the bulk of the dish in question.

    There’s simply nothing wrong with adding stuff to food to make it tasty, attractive, and stable. Every serious chef has done that, everywhere in the world, for thousands of years.

    And they’ve done it to make a lot of perfectly good food not only edible, but very pleasant to eat.

    That’s Jamie Oliver’s job, and he shouldn’t be making it sound like a generally bad thing to do.

    Oliver is exploiting adults’ simplistic and/or overblown fears about additives like MSG, too, to make it seem like he’s teaching kids a good lesson. Most people just don’t realize that MSG basically does the same umami-flavor-enhancing thing as soy sauce or miso or nutritional yeast or seaweed or mushrooms, i.e., contribute free glutamate, which is a good thing up to a point. And Oliver neglects to mention that the good, non-“yucky” part of the chicken has the same thing in it too, and that like fat, it’s a big part of why it tastes good. (Slow-cooking meat makes it yummier largely because it breaks proteins down and frees up amino acids, particularly glutamate, so that you can taste
    them better, much like adding MSG to something that doesn’t have much glutamate in it in the first place.)

    And of course there’s the weirdness that his “experiment” doesn’t even represent the way that chicken nuggets are made in the US—US consumers would irrationally balk at anything besides major muscle meat. (And when it comes to chicken, generally white meat only, unless they specifically order dark meat.)

    (But maybe nuggest would be more nutritious if they were made that way, as long as you get rid of most of the fat. Most Americans get way more muscle protein than is good for them, and they’d probably be better off eating more connective tissue, ground bone, etc. instead.)

    It’s just an experiment in making perfectly good food that reasonable people have eaten for thousands of years seem “gross,” without having to explain the real problems, like too much salt, too much fat, too much animal fat, the wrong coloring agents, and so on.

    I myself don’t eat much meat, and the food I cook is almost all vegan, which I think it is typically better for you, all other things being equal.

    But good vegan cooking is largely a matter of using flavor enhancers, flavoring agents, texturing agents, stabilizers, etc., and cooking techniques that break down or synthesize chemicals to make things tastier. It’s most of what I do when I cook, to get by without meat and with less fat and bad fat, and still keep it yummy. I “process” most of my food in various ways, and most of them are more or less analogous to various common techniques used in industrial food processing.

    IMO if you’re going to kill a chicken, you should eat the whole chicken, not just the “not gross” parts of it that naive Americans are so irrationally attached to. (One of the good things about “processed” food is that not much is thrown away—productive uses are found for things like feathers, skin, guts and bones.) It’s a good thing we don’t expect American consumers to know what to do with an actual chicken.

    The kids got this one right—the proof of not-grossness is in the eating, and they should not listen to simplistic claptrap about “yucky parts” and the evils of “flavoring agents” and “stabilizers”.

    Jamie Oliver should be ashamed of himself.

  15. didgen says

    I also think that was a terrible video. If I buy any piece of meat very little besides easily removed large amounts of fat are wasted. I save chicken carcases and bones for stock and pet food, any pieces of meat that are small are saved for soup or things like hash. I add bread crumbs, oats, eggs, all sorts of vegetables to stretch things and improve taste. I grew up poor and was a single parent, there were times that if I had thought of it I would have done that to get another meal of perfectly edible chicken.

  16. Amy Larimer says

    I think this is a problem with both the quality of food that is served cafeteria-style and with the food kids are used to eating at home.

    I would bet that in most cases, mom and dad are too busy to actually cook or can’t be bothered, so the kids get McDonald’s or pizza for dinner nearly every night. Plus a never-ending supply of junk food as snacks. If, like me, you grow up with mushy-tasty overcooked vegetables from a can, you probably develop an aversion to the real stuff. I have an aversion to vegetables that I have not been able to shake. I eat them when I am dining out, but I never buy raw vegetables (with rare exceptions) because I don’t know how to make them taste good. They invariably don’t. So I buy the frozen ones, usually with some kind of sauce or whatever that makes them more palatable to me. I suspect that this is some of what is going on here. Unlimited fruits and vegetables does not really sound like something I would ever have taken advantage of in school.

    The other thing is that school cafeteria food is just horrible, or at least that’s how I remember it. I rarely ate it, but only on the days they served the lease objectionable things like pizza. Also, because they have to buy in bulk or they get government surplus foods, it’s likely not to be very high quality in the first place, which can certainly affect kids’ enjoyment of the meals.

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