Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Does the Sweet Tooth Really Bite?

The Education Department of New York City has banned… well almost totally banned… those dreaded, terrifying, death-defying, fear-inducing and downright fattening “bake sales” used by schools to raise money for everything from new books to athletic programs. No more yummy carrot cake, cupcakes, chocolate cream pie or piled-high-superrich-icing-slathered cakes-that-otherwise-defy-description sold at public schools in NYC. Junior is getting enough fat and sugar, so the folks in the Big Apple don’t want that apple in pie or cake form.

Limits on what can be sold in on-site school vending machines or student stores also removes fats and sweets from the shelves and slots. There’s even an academic reason for the new wellness campaign, a cornerstone of Mayor Bloomberg’s education agenda for the city: “Roughly 40 percent of the city’s elementary and middle school students are overweight or obese, according to the Education Department. The department also found a correlation between student health and performance on standardized tests, according to a survey it released in July.” October 4th NY Times.

While states like California have placed severe limits on what can be sold in school vending machines, lunch programs and bake sales, New York City actually goes one giant step beyond. But kids can still bring fatty and sugary snacks with them for their brown bad moments or to celebrate a birthday.

Of course, special interests get exceptions to these rules as well. The above Times article: “Parent groups and Parent-Teacher Associations are conspicuously given an exception: once a month they are allowed to sell as many dark fudge brownies and lemon bars as they please, so long as lunch has ended. And after 6 p.m. on weekdays, anything goes. But at that hour, most students are long gone, and as far as the Education Department is concerned, stuffing oneself with coconut macaroons and peanut butter cookies at that hour is one’s prerogative.”

The Centers for Disease Control issued a report on all this (looking at 2002-2008) in the last few days. Some conclusions:

1) Of 34 states that collected data, the average number of secondary schools that didn't sell soda or fruit drinks that weren't 100% juice went from 38% in 2006 to 64% in 2008.

Mississippi and Tennessee did best, increasing to 75% from 22% (Mississippi) and to 74% from 27% (Tennessee).

2) The average number of schools (in the 40 states that provided data) that "did not sell candy or salty snacks not low in fat" increased from 46% in 2002 to 64% in 2008. (Oct. 5th Los Angeles Times)

So if you link this ban (and growing trend) with a recent study at Cardiff University in the U.K. – which associates high levels of sugar consumption during childhood with a later propensity to commit criminal acts – the combined impact is most interesting. The October 3rd Los Angeles Times summarizes the report: “To test this hypothesis, the researchers used the British Cohort Study to obtain information on the frequency of sweets consumption at age 10 and on violence convictions by age 34… They found that 69% of people convicted of violence had in fact eaten sweets nearly every day when they were younger. Only 42% of those who had been nonviolent until age 34 reported such daily consumption.

“The study concludes: ‘One plausible mechanism is that persistently using confectionery to control childhood behaviour might prevent children from learning to defer gratification, in turn biasing decision processes towards more impulsive behaviour, biases that are strongly associated with delinquency. Furthermore, childhood confectionery consumption may nurture a taste that is maintained into adulthood, exposing adults to the effects of additives often found in sweetened food, the consumption of which may also contribute towards adult aggression. Moreover, although parental attitudes were associated with adult violence, the effect of diet was robust having controlled for these attitudinal variables. Irrespective of the causal mechanism, which warrants further attention, targeting resources at improving childhood diet may improve health and reduce aggression.’”

Or maybe parents who don’t know enough or care enough to control their kids’ diets probably aren’t the best parents. And remember the academic links above… aren’t less educated kids more likely to commit crimes anyway? We know there are kids with medical issues that are certainly behind many issues, but when you are in a grocery store and watch a parent stuff candy into a begging child’s mouth to shut them up… well, we’ve all seen it, and it is never pretty.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I approve this message.

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