VEGA News Item

School Meals Eat and Smile, Veggie Style - 18/10/2005
We respond to an invitation to a written consultation with the Food Standards Agency (FSA). We urge development of a multi-purpose dietary that could spare caterers’ difficulties at communal functions, not only in schools, and provide wholesome and tasty meals for people with various grades of veggie practice and other special needs and sensitivities (e.g. allergies, intolerances, and aversions entailed in Jewish, Muslim, and Friday RC observances); and the general public to whom going veggie would be no odder than, say, going Indian. Lots of opportunities here for an enterprising FSA.

Consultation on UK target nutrient specification for manufactured products used in school meals

Numerous consultations with MAFF, DEFRA, and FSA, as well as with manufacturers, prove our longstanding interest and involvement in the present subject, which raises similar issues in catering in circumstances other than schools, e.g. in universities, works canteens, hospitals, prisons, the armed forces, airline fare (and other sources of meals in transit) – not to mention the catering served in Aviation House and at meetings organized by the FSA and its contractors. We emphasise that we are a registered charitable trust, independent of specific commercial involvement.

1. Our website www.vegaresearch.org illustrates our general outlook and activity and our appreciation of minority interests, and the costiveness of the British food and drinks industry to respond to opportunities of reforms in farming, food, health, and the land. To this end we produced in 1997 a Green Plan, of which a Campaign for Real Bread was a timely and readily assimilable offshoot. It was highly successful and the farming and food industries took up the challenges vigorously and generally with satisfactory and competitive enterprise in the advance from factory-made Mother’s Shame sold as a loss-leader to a variety of breads and bakery products informatively labelled and responding to progress in agronomic and nutritional issues.

2. We followed with Assalt, a campaign to reduce levels of salt intake. This followed from our concern for “real” bread. We also initiated the first of the campaigns aimed at curbing the mischief of incitements to unhealthy impulse-buying and pester-power in queues waiting at the tills of supermarkets. Most recently, we have urged the FSA to show some muscle by putting bans on sales of cigarettes in outlets selling foods (which are as incongruous as setting up brothels in cathedrals) or banning sales of foodstuffs in shops licensed to sell tobacco. We have also noticed some salutary changes in the canteen at Aviation House, but regret that customers passing from the servery to the till have to pass an array of “junk” foods and snacks before they proceed past a collection of fast foods more in keeping with the FSA’s testament, and finally to the cash-point. Our Assalt course was pitched in terms of sodium/potassium ratios, because this comprehended an understanding of a factor in which fruit and vegetables excelled. The campaign generated some tardy and gradual reductions in breads and products such as baked beans, which recent reinforcement appears to be accelerating, particularly if the FSA sets a good example and exerts influence by patient education aimed in the present context at parents, teachers, governors of schools etc., as well as the food and drinks industry and regulators of advertising. We have made many suggestions to the FSA on the educative factor, especially to avert reactionary rejections to nanny-statism. The responsibilities of school governors and authorities were illustrated by reaction 15 years or so ago to taking beef off school menus. These good health messages must not swamp testimony on the harm done by smoking and excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages.

3. In this instance, we elicited a good response from Professor Krebs and look forward to similar attitudes, expressed publicly and with rigorous naming and shaming by his successor as head of the FSA. Further – and yesterday being World Food Day (what a good opportunity for topics at school) – we commend the Royal Institution’s Christmas lectures on Food and intended for parents and children, which will be televised live. They will be given by Professor Krebs.

4. Teachers and school staff should eat the same food as the children and preferably among them. Children in the “awkward squad” with peculiar dietary requirements because of aversions of various types, allergies, and intolerances should not be isolated, but treated with understanding and protected from taunting or bullying, and tendencies to anorexia or eating disorders should be considered as calls for help. Many vegetarians “convert” during their school years, during which their unsophisticated and unsullied view of the other animals is due for a rude shock. To sensitive children a company at table of friends and elders exulting over the entrails and other mortal remains of livestock they have been led to revere can be more disgusting than sitting at repasts where the diners are addressing themselves to meals of cowpats comprising nicely fermented grass, yielded freely. School dinners – rice and semolina puddings and livers for instance – stamp consumers’ dietary memories, choices, and prejudices long after they’ve grown up.

5. From our experience we believe that the FSA would act best by applying its powers to education of all parties, spurring the food and drinks industry into greater enterprise and development, especially for the needs of minority groups and SMEs, and cultivating initiatives accommodating local characteristics, cultures, and conditions for harmonious and varied mealtimes (although there must be some provision for minorities who choose to shy away from communal catering – there are vegetarian style schools, for instance). School catering must fit in with meals taken at home and well-informed teachers must ensure discreetly that the child’s nutrition has taken account of the provision made by parents and guardians and by older children and adolescents exercising their own judgement. These principles apply particularly for boarding schools and brought in sandwiches and lunch-boxes. It is important not to usurp parents’ responsibilities and involvements: they and schools must ensure that breakfasts loom largest in the day’s fare of 3 good meals, with a minimum of snacks, other than liquid refreshments.

6. In our consultations with the FSA on definitions and labelling we have tried to direct enterprise t truly vegetarian catering and cuisine that tastefully accommodates all grades of adherence and would satisfy consumers of Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and other oriental custom and preferences and restrictions, as well as observers of Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and “Friday RC” disciplines. This enterprise could relieve caterers of requirements for different versions of vegetarianism, sometimes with unfamiliar words, such as vegan, vegetalian, fruitarian, microbiotic, and rastafarian; it will also meet the needs of the growing populations of meat reducers and dairy-frees and avert the decline into cheesytarianism and quichytarianism. Finally, its general application for communal and institutional; catering should create a demand and market for innovation in the food and drinks industry and a spur to salutary enterprise. Indications of this can be seen in the uptake of once-exotic breads and pulse products, such as tofu and houmous, and the beginnings of a breakthrough in fermented foods, such as tempeh. We know of initiatives by farmers in Essex to offer Egyptian-style falafels made from locally-grown field beans and coriander.

7. Many food cultures are based on manifold applications of a limited range of staple crops: cereals, for instance, in the wheat-based cultures of Europe and N India, rice for S India and SE Asia, and the pulse soya in China, Japan, and other oriental areas. Lactose intolerance has been an influence in limiting the spread of cow-based milky dietaries. It is not surprising that allergies and intolerances have developed to staples such as wheat, (unfermented) dairy produce, and soya. Although we are trying to develop dietaries with a wide range of staples, we doubt that reservations apply to soya any more than to others: it is a nitrogen-fixing crop and has agronomic and health advantages and it can be converted directly into dairy-products without stuffing it wastefully into ill-used cows to turn into similar comestibles – a process now notorious in the origin of BSE. Some meat-products are extended with soya-products such as TVP.

8. Therefore a multi-purpose vegetarian dietary can be based on pulses and cereals, with fermentations to add variety, and applications in the approved FSA way to proteinaceous savouries in a range of forms. Hospital catering uses egg-substitutes for bakery purposes in providing for patients with certain allergies (there are further details on our website). Nuts are very rich foods misapplied as adjuncts to already excessive meals. Organizations such as the Californian Almond Growers provide details of meals and menus developed in a portfolio of vegetarian diets recommended by medical and nutritional authorities in bids to reduce the scourges of obesity and cardiovascular disorders. In consultations with the FSA we have mentioned the possibilities in developments with home-grown (or, at least, Euro-grown) tree nuts, such as hazels and walnuts. Mycoproteins such as torula yeast and Quorn offer more possibilities and high-protein cereals such as oats, quinoa, and amaranth should be used more in inventive cuisines. Use of vegetable oils instead of animal fats has been boosted further, as in their use instead of butter taken, especially as olive oil, as an accompaniment to interesting breads and rolls.

9. Recent developments in easily available plant milks have benefited the vegetarian lifestyle and they contribute usefully in overcoming deficiencies revealed in the National Dietary and Nutritional Survey in intakes of essential B-vitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and iodide, which are essential in skeletal development and successful reproduction. Plant milks enriched with fruit juices are now coming on the market. They look good for refreshment and nutrition in circumstances such as school canteens. They also exemplify an apt expression of bioavailability. In assessing the advantages of the “milks of human kindness” derived directly from plants we emphasize the often-overlooked lack of fortification of British cow’s milk (and other animal-derived milks) with vitamin D, which is taken for granted in many comparable countries, even at latitudes lower than the British Isles.

10. Yeast extracts are important ingredients in vegetarian-style foods. Marmite soldiers are an early introduction to children’s diets. In our Assalt course, being concerned at stimulation of a taste as objectionable as the temptation of the sweet tooth, we campaigned for increased sales of low-salt yeast extracts. We suffered rebuffs from all the major manufacturers and retailers, but health-food stores have taken up a challenge that the FSA should now surely endorse. Soup cubes are another objectionable and costly way of buying salt. Unfortunately the Vegetarian Society sells its approvals on such products. We urge the FSA and parents and caterers to ignore these approvals and to see that children are brought up more in keeping with the FSA’s low-salt way.

11. In another frequent misconception nutritionists and doctors assume that commercial salt supplies for manufacturing and for the table are iodized. Except for some manufactured foods imported from countries (such as India) where iodization is more widely practised, British vegetarian diets can be deficient in this essential element, unless certain supplements are chosen. Data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey indicate that concern over low iodine intakes is of wider consequence, especially for adolescent girls. (Iodide repletion ensures good development of the brain and successful pregnancy and development of progeny). Many European countries routinely iodise salt. Adoption of this practice more widely in the UK would perplex consumers responding to the FSA’s calls for reduced intakes of salt and it might excuse manufacturers guilty of resistance to the FSA’s appeals. We can pursue this matter more fully with the FSA and describe solutions on which we have been having some success. Various consultations and our website carry some of the relevant information. Collaboration with MAFF augmented the Composition of Food Tables with relevant details, but these are still wanting (as is other information on foods particular to vegetarian diets but proving more popular; international tables may be more comprehensive and more easily accessible).

12. With the collaboration of nutritionist at South Bank University we have secured iodization of the aforementioned “milks of human kindness”, i.e. those sold under the Alpro and So Good and some own-brand names; however, the level of addition is not declared on the labels. Some of these foods, like many others, may include texturizing agents such as agar, alginates, or carrageen, which are derived from seaweeds. However, manufacturers have refused to divulge the corresponding level of iodine content (based on analyses of the additives provided by us), which might be excessive and harmful. Iodization can be achieved by addition of potassium iodide or iodate or of iodized fat. Adventitious additions must be allowed for, e.g. from drugs and medicinals and from erythrosine, a coloring agent used in foods. We have urged the FSA to add seaweeds to its tally of desirable fruit and vegetables and to reinforce our persuasions to the farming and fishing industries, as well as retailers and importers, to increase applications of sea vegetables in the dietary of this sea-girt island.

13. The FSA must oversee the effects of its reforms in school catering by levels of screening going beyond the services of the school nurse or doctor to consultations with well-versed professionals applying simple and mobile diagnostics using biomarkers. Shortcomings of special diets or integration into out-of-school consumption could be quickly recognized and overcome, and parents and children could be relieved of worries, isolation, and lack of sympathy.

Registered Charity No. 1045293
© VEGA - 2008