Smoothies pass the health test, as Texas cracks down on junk food in schools

Wednesday, February 2nd 2005, 1:25 pm

By: News On 6

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) _ Instead of raiding a vending machine after school or loading up on macaroni and cheese at home, 13-year-old Megan de la Torre picks up a strawberry-and-banana smoothie right on campus.

``I had the money and they are really good,'' said Megan, slurping the $3 drink after classes at Nolan Catholic High School.

It's not yet a common sight, but schools across the nation are battling childhood obesity by getting pickier about who sells snacks to students. In several dozen school systems, Smoothie King and Jamba Juice pass the test.

``More and more these days you're seeing a trend toward school cafeterias kicking out the sodas and the junk food,'' said Rocky Gettys of Kenner, La.-based Smoothie King.

Even so, smoothies are still a source of sugar and calories.

Smoothie King says its 200-calorie, 12-ounce banana-and-strawberry smoothie has 42 grams of sugar _ mostly from the fruit itself, the company says. And that size is small for a smoothie.

A piece of fruit or milk would be preferable, says Marilyn Swanson, director of education and training at Oxford, Miss.-based National Food Service Management Institute. But she agreed it is ``a better choice than a Coke.''

Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, called smoothies _ a blend of fruit, ice and sometimes yogurt _ a ``big improvement'' over the kind of snacks usually found in school vending machines.

``I'm in favor of getting kids to eat fruit,'' she said. ``It's got fruit, that's good.''

Both Smoothie King and San Francisco-based Jamba Juice have sold fruit smoothies in schools since the 1990s.

``Parents came to Jamba because they were looking for something that was a healthier option than a soda or greasy french fries,'' company spokesman Kendra Gilberd said.

Federal researchers say the percentage of school-age kids who are overweight has been rising since the late 1970s, and the rate is now at about 16 percent. The greater availability of soda, candy and cookies, and less emphasis on exercise, has led to more overweight children developing diabetes, high blood pressure and early signs of heart disease _ health problems usually seen in adults.

A number of school systems across the country are cracking down on what's available in vending machines and what's served on the cafeteria line.

This school year Texas has a new school nutrition policy that restricts fried and fatty servings and sets limits on some types of food. The fruit and ice smoothies are limited to 12-ounce cups; 20-ounce smoothies can mean 300 to more than 500 calories, depending on the ingredients.

``Even too much of a good food can be a problem,'' said Dr. William Cochran, a pediatric gastroenterologist and nutritionist for Geisinger Clinic in Danville, Pa. He worries that snacks like smoothies won't replace something else and will only add more calories.

Gettys said about 45 of Smoothie King's approximately 365 franchises sell smoothies in schools across the United States. Taste is an important element.

``It's very rare that you find something that the kids like that's good for them,'' Gettys said.

After classes at Nolan Catholic High, as students headed home or to extracurricular activities, several lined up for smoothies in a commons area where vending machines offered chips, candy and sodas. The smoothies stand is open once a week as a fund-raiser, with a school-related group getting $1 for every drink sold.

De la Torre said her vending machine choice would've leaned toward Skittles or Starburst, but she was pleased with her smoothie.

``They're better (for you), too,'' she said, as she took another sip.

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