At School Lunch, Healthier Options are Overlooked When Juice is Available

High school lunch. (Steve Debenport/Getty Images)
High school lunch. (Steve Debenport/Getty Images)

High school students are less likely to opt for milk, whole fruit, or water when fruit juice is available as part of the school lunch program, which may decrease the nutritional value of what they are consuming, according to a new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.

The study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, utilized data from three low-income, Northeast high schools in a single school year to determine whether high school students select different meal options on days when juice is available. Juice is not served as part of the National School Lunch program on all days.

While whole fruits, vegetables, and dairy contribute to a healthy diet, the appropriate role of juice in children’s diets has generated widespread debate. Currently, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ages 7 to 18 consume no more than eight ounces of juice daily.

The findings have implications for the more than 30 million students who participate in the National School Lunch program.

“Compared to juice, milk and whole fruit are better sources of three nutrients of concern for adolescents – calcium, vitamin D, and fiber,” says Marlene Schwartz, director of the UConn Rudd Center and study co-author. Schwartz is a professor of human development and family studies.

Key findings include:

  • On juice days, milk consumption dropped nearly 10 percent, and whole fruit sales, 7 percent.
  • On juice days, 8 percent fewer bottles of water were sold a la carte.

“The potential nutritional impact of these substitutions is important to consider,” says Rebecca Boehm, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow with the UConn Rudd Center and the Zwick Center for Food and Resource Policy in the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources.

For instance, an eight-ounce serving of apple juice has less calcium and potassium, and no vitamin D, as compared to an eight-ounce serving of 1 percent milk, Boehm says.

Margaret Read, research associate at the UConn Rudd Center, also contributed to the research, which was supported by the Healthy Eating Research Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.