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Snack Bar Temptation's Too Great for Middle Schoolers

By Alfredo Flores
June 30, 2004

Many middle school students who have daily access to snack bar offerings find the temptation hard to resist, according to Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists at the Children's Nutrition Research Center (CNRC) in Houston, Texas.

It is unrealistic to expect middle school children to have the desire--or willpower--to resist the foods common at snack bars, according to Karen Cullen, a CNRC behavioral nutrition researcher and assistant professor of pediatrics at the Baylor College of Medicine. Children, like adults, naturally prefer the taste of sweets and fats. But knowing how to balance highly desirable--but less nutritious--foods with more healthy ones is learned over time and requires maturity.

Cullen led the study, which followed 594 fourth- and fifth-graders over a two-year period, to learn how gaining access to snack bars affects children's diets. Cullen found that during the transition from grade school to middle school, students' lunchtime consumption of healthy foods like fruit, vegetables and milk dropped by one-third or more.

At the same time, Cullen found the students were eating 68 percent more foods that were higher in calories--such as fries and chips--and were drinking 62 percent more sweetened beverages, such as soda and sweetened teas.

More than one-third of the middle school students reported eating exclusively at the snack bar during the two-year study. The top-selling foods at the snack bar were pizza, chips, soda, french fries, candy and ice cream. Oftentimes, the only vegetable available was a pickle, and the product closest to a fruit was fruit-flavored candy.

Cullen suggests that parents and schools offer children more nutritious snack alternatives, such as colorful, cut-up fruit in see-through plastic cups or in fruit-and-yogurt parfaits and carrot sticks with a low-fat dip. This would help improve the school eating environment.

The study was published earlier this year in the American Journal of Public Heath.

The CNRC is operated by the Baylor College of Medicine in cooperation with Texas Children's Hospital and ARS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.