WASHINGTON – Some Maryland private schools are encouraging healthier snacking with all natural and organic vending machines, but organic doesn’t necessarily mean better, a nutritionist said.
YoNaturals Inc., a vending company based in California, installed YoZone vending machines in at least five Maryland private schools, including St. Bernadette Catholic School, Montrose Christian School and St. Elizabeth School, all in Montgomery County.
YoNaturals installs machines without a leasing contract, receives all profits, then gives a percentage back to the schools.
“Schools’ officials are recognizing the extent of the problem of childhood obesity and teens’ poor eating habits and are doing something about it,” said Mark Trotter, chief executive officer of YoNaturals in a news release on MarketWatch.
As childhood obesity increases, school vending machines have been hotly debated. In 2006, Bill Clinton and the American Beverage Association agreed to limit school soft-drink sales in public schools nationwide. Maryland legislators have proposed banning public school vending machines and charging more for unhealthy snacks.
In 2005, Maryland required counties to create nutritional guidelines and have timing devices turn off vending machines during certain hours.
For example, Prince George’s County Public Schools leave machines off except for lunch and after school. Principals choose which products are sold, but the offerings must contain less-sugary drinks, said spokesman John White.
YoNaturals provides more than 350 selections of organic or all-natural foods that meet state nutritional standards, have reasonable costs and pass a student taste test.
“YoNaturals started this program to prove that kids will eat healthy snacks and drinks, as long as they taste good,” Trotter said.
The snacks and drinks are lower in high fructose corn syrup and calories, but aren’t the solution for every student, said Jennifer Bentlejewski, a dietician at the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Allegany County.
“Each individual has to look at what’s going to be best for them,” she said. “With many of these kinds of things this company is promoting there are a lot of questions … Not everything organic means healthy.”
For example, diabetic children may not benefit from the high carbohydrates in some YoNaturals products.
Most YoNaturals products have fewer calories, fat and sugar than typical vending machine products, but some are higher in carbohydrates and sodium, said Bentlejewski.
A Clif Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Crunch Organic Z Bar has 210 milligrams of sodium and 43 grams of carbohydrates, according to YoNaturals’ Web site. A Snickers candy bar has only 140 milligrams of sodium and 35 grams of carbohydrates, according to Snickers’ Web site.
A 1 ounce bag of Stacy’s Simply Naked Pita Chips has 140 milligrams of sodium and 18 grams of carbohydrates, according to YoNaturals. The same size bag of Utz Regular Potato Chips has 95 milligrams of sodium and 14 grams of carbohydrates. The difference is in the fat content: The pita chips contain 4 grams of fat per serving, while the Utz chips contain more than double that.
Blue Sky Lemon-Lime Soda has 150 calories and 43 carbohydrates, according to YoNatural. A Sprite has 96 calories and 26 carbohydrates, according to the Coca-Cola Company. Blue Sky has less sodium.
“It’s kind of a trade off when you look at it that way,” Bentlejewski said. “But we do focus on promotion of foods with the least amount of artificial ingredients.”
Another danger to healthier snacks is thinking we can eat more, Bentlejewski said. But, eating 10 Clif Bars is not better than eating one Snickers.
If schools have vending machines, education “about making life decisions and keeping portions under control” has to come with them, she said.
At St. Bernadette Catholic School in Silver Spring, the YoZone vending machine is filled with Vitamin Water, a flavored low-sugar drink; fruit smoothies; low-fat milk; a carbonated juice beverage; and Pirate’s Booty, a cheese puff snack.
“When it was first installed, we had to restock the machine in three days,” said Principal Cheri Wood. “(The students) are purchasing a lot.”
Wood opted for the all-natural and/or organic YoZone instead of all-organic because students shouldn’t assume organic equals healthy.
Her concern was peanut allergies and sugar. “So I had to make sure parents were aware how the foods were made, and I checked the sugar content,” she said.
People are often misled by package advertising, Bentlejewski said, but “calories, fat, carbohydrates and fiber still need to be examined.”
YoNaturals has a Web site, HealthyStudentVending.com, which provides nutritional information for buyers.
Another concern at St. Bernadette’s was the all-organic prices. The price of their YoZone products now range from $1.25 to $1.75, but the range would have been higher with all-organic products.
“I felt that my families needed healthy options that weren’t too costly, and I was concerned organic would be too much for them,” she said.
The flashy green, orange and blue designs on YoZones are enough to draw students’ attention, Bentlejewski said, but parents need to be sure the food is right for their child.
“If they’re going to have (vending machines) these types of food are possibly healthier choices,” Bentlejewski said. “Our recommendation is still for children or adults to be consuming nutrients through whole foods and not supplementation. If you can eat an apple versus an apple drink, do that.”