Junk foods in school cafeterias,Trans fat, salt, sugar, and cholesterol:
It’s noon. Nischaya Gauli, 16, is lethargic after five classes straight. Weighed down with hunger, he runs to the school cafeteria.
At Brihaspati Vidya Sadan School where Gauli studies, a proper meal of rice, lentil and seasonal vegetables is served but Gauli prefers samosa, doughnut and instant noodle over the nutritious diet that the cafeteria offers.
Gauli is just one among many youngsters who consume junk food on a daily basis as their lunch. From school cafeterias to eating out in restaurants, children have unregulated access to a wide range of junk foods. The easy availability has children hooked as health risks run deep.
Easy accessibility and all-round marketing have tempted the young to opt for junk foods, as one can easily observe.
Prerana KC, a student at Galaxy Public School, admits that she loves junk food, and be it at the school cafeteria or while going out, she regularly indulges in such “comfort foods.” At her school cafeteria, items like pizza, doughnut, fried rice and chowmein are on the menu.
“Many of my friends are junk food fanatics and they consume it on a regular basis. Such foods aren’t only tasty and alluring but it’s fun sharing with friends and it gives us pleasure, too,” says KC who is aware of new junk food items in the market through advertisements.
Working parents too bank on school cafeterias as their only resort. Sunil Krishna Pradhan, a shop owner, used to send homemade lunch for his son.
But due to time constraints and limited options, his son Projone Pradhan, a grade seven student at Meridian School in Baluwatar, started to eat foods at the school cafeteria, which offers varieties like momos, chowmein, and sandwiches.
Pradhan says that his son is particular when it comes to eating and prefers junk foods like noodles, potato chips and aerated drinks. Though he tries to convince his son to at least refrain from having packaged junk foods, he has no other choice than to bank on the school cafeteria.
Sushil Shrestha, office secretary at Adarsha Vidya Mandir (AVM), thinks that parents are not so conscious about what their children eat and due to time constraints are unable to makes efforts to prepare proper lunch for their children.
“We encourage students to bring their own lunch since junk food uses a lot of preservatives and chemicals, thereby affecting their health. But due to the demand from the students, we don’t have any alternative,” says Shrestha.
For sheer convenience, he adds that parents even give money for lunch to their children, thus encouraging them to consume more junk foods.
While it is pragmatic and a hassle-free option for parents to let their children eat at school cafeterias, Shrestha stresses that they should be at least be aware of what their children are eating.
It is important to note here that most school cafeterias not only offer packaged junk foods and fried items but they also sell those items at rates exceeding the maximum retail prices.
If on one hand, the unregulated sale of these food items is affecting the health of growing children, the unmonitored prices continue to burn the pockets of parents.
The cafeteria at AVM offers junk foods like packaged chips, biscuits, fried delicacies like chops, samosas, among others. The scene is similar in other Valley schools like Pathshala Nepal Foundation and Shri Ratna Rajya Higher Secondary School where this scribe visited.
Binesh Shrestha, cafeteria supervisor at Little Angels’ School in Hattiban, informs that on average, six cartoons of instant noodles are sold in a day. One cartoon has 30 packets.
The school runs three cafeterias which offer a range of options to students – burgers, momos and samosas – and the favorites among students sell as hot cakes.
Nani Shova Shakya, Dietician at Tribhuwan University Teaching Hospital, says that she once dealt with a case of an 11-year-old who had diabetes.
She says that such cases and children with overweight issues are on the rise and that the empty calories that junk foods provide may also lead to obesity and cardiovascular diseases.
“In the capital, many children are becoming overweight due to intake of junk foods. Such foods are harmful for health in the long run, as it not only invites overweight problems but also causes heart diseases and hypertension,” says Shakya.
While junk foods are ubiquitous and it is hard to avoid them, there is however a handful of positive instances which, if adapted, can encourage students to lower the intake of such items.
Patrick Wilson, Principal at Wilson Academy, asserts that his school provides wholesome cooked diets and refrains from providing junk foods. “The food is quite hygienic as well. We don’t encourage students to opt for junk foods, which is why we don’t allow packaged junk foods in school,” he says.
But easier said than done! Amrita Sharma says that the junk food culture has developed so much so that it is difficult for the students to give up easily.
Founder director of Bidya Vyayam English High School, she is of the opinion that it is at least better to make the students eat at school cafeteria rather than have them go outside of school and eat and drink.
She points out that students are so used to having junk foods that it is almost impossible to monitor and control them from having it. “We had stopped providing instant noodles in our cafeteria.
Such foods are unhealthy and may invite illnesses and other health problems. But due to the demand from the children, we started selling it again,” says Sharma.
According to Bal Krishna Subedi, spokesperson at the Ministry of Health, so far the Ministry has not formulated any laws on schools to refrain from selling junk foods. “But under the Child Health Division of the Health Ministry, we have nutrition programs where we promote healthy eating among children.”
He says that having junk foods is a kind of a behavior among children, and so raising awareness is the key to monitor their habits. He mentions that rather than policies, it is more about practice; and parents should be aware of what their children are eating and the children themselves should be conscious as well.
“But we also believe in the process of Behavior Change Communication (BCC) where we try to encourage students and spread the idea of maintaining healthy eating habits to bring positive changes,” says Subedi.
An editorial, “More to junk food than meets the eye,” by Sunita Narain published on April 30 in Down To Earth (DTE), a science and environment magazine published in New Delhi, highlights the findings of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi-based laboratory.
“Junk food which is food with empty calories provides fat, sugar and salt, without nutrition. Also labels on packages do not explain just how much of our daily salt, sugar or fat quota junk food is taking up,” the magazine’s issue editorializes, among raising other pertinent points.
As per the test results of CSE, which tested all that are readily available in fast food outlets or as branded and packaged items in shops across India, ranging from instant noodles, chips and Indian bhujia to the ubiquitous Colas, chicken fries and burgers, consumers are not told that one packet of chips, devoured easily, supplies half of what we should take daily in terms of fat and salt; one bottle of Cola has twice the daily added sugar allowance of adults and children.
The study also found that companies were not just irresponsible through omission but also through deliberate misrepresentation of facts about the quantity of trans fats which gets formed during hydrogenation of oil which is linked to serious health problems.
Clinical Dietician Rashmi Shrestha at Kist Medical College informs that trans fat can lead to serious health problems and can invite problems of gastritis and high cholesterol. When the country does not even have any limit on that, we can only imagine the health of those children who are hooked to junk products.
Pramod Koirala, spokesperson at the Department of Food Technology and Quality Control, says that any food product with excess fat, sugar and salt comes under the category of junk food.
“To check trans fat, we need costly machines for laboratory analysis, and we don’t have such facilities. Once we have the equipments, we’ll make a standard to check it and formulate proper laws on that,” says Koirala.
“There are no laws in Nepal that regulate junk foods but we make sure to check the quality of the products. There are separate standard for every junk food item. The main thing that is checked is the quality of the oil used in the product. Also, the salt content of the food product should not exceed 4 percent,” adds Koirala.
He informs that there have been cases when certain products have been banned for using poor quality oil repeatedly to produce noodles and chips.
According to a recent research done from November to February on ten sample noodles and chips products in the market, two noodle products among those were found to be substandard.
In the last fiscal year, 2010/11, alone, Nepal imported 879,221kgs of various noodles worth Rs 60.27 million; 159,292, 892kgs of potato chips, wafers and bakery products worth Rs1.119 billion; and 12,253,513 liters of aerated drinks worth Rs 759.24 million.
According to Dietician Shrestha, junk foods have high calories but without minerals and vitamins. In foods like potato chips and instant noodles, ajinomoto (monosodium glutamate) and sodium contents are most likely higher, making the bone weak and not allowing proper growth.
She mentions that if children take enough liquid after they consume junk foods, such diets will be less harmful. But if the water intake is less and the salt intake is more, it has adverse effects on their health, further increasing the risks of high blood pressure.
“Popular junk foods like momos and pakoras decrease appetite and suppress hunger, and once children start having such foods, they are disinterested to eat other healthy foods,” says Shrestha.
In order to maintain healthy diet, she suggests that schools provide junk foods occasionally but the cafeteria menus should include healthy foods like rice, vegetables and salads on regular basis.
She also points out that students need a lot of physical activities to burn their calories; otherwise, it can lead to overweight issues as well.
“Since schoolchildren are of growing age, they need enough calories and vitamins. So having junk foods occasionally is fine but if taken everyday can put a heavy toll on the health of growing children,” says Shrestha.
With no laws to regulate and outdated logistics and infrastructure, the health of Nepali children is at risk as junk foods in school cafeterias and elsewhere are laden with trans fat, salt, sugar and cholesterol double whammy.
The 11-year-old’s diabetic case and growing obesity in others are just a start of bad and sad news in the making.