Food fight

School lunches: Using more soy in school menus could help fight a weighty problem.

March 08, 2000

SCHOOL cafeteria lunches have changed a lot in recent years. Salad bars, fast-food entrees, bottled waters, yogurt as a main dish.

Then there's the federal rule that limits the amount of fat in school lunches to less than 30 percent on average, an admitted problem for cafeterias that serve over 26 million kids a day.

The obvious answer to that dilemma is to use more good, low-fat soy protein as a substitute for meat. So the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to soon allow unlimited use of soy as a meat substitute in school lunches; the current limit is 30 percent.

It's an idea whose time has come in a nation where obesity is a major problem. Lifting the limit on soy does not mean eliminating meat from the school lunch menu. But it should reduce the amount of animal fat, and saturated fat. And it should give students a healthier choice of noontime nutrition.

A burger patty of soy contains one-fifth the fat of a same-sized serving of beef, with more valuable fiber and vegetable estrogen. The drawback is that the soy burger has one-third less protein and lacks essential trace minerals of iron and zinc.

The mineral deficiency can be made up with other elements of a normal balanced diet -- no need for extra servings of spinach to compensate, the USDA says. Enrichment of foods could help.

The biggest drawback to wider use of soy may be the cost. School cafeterias are reimbursed by the USDA for qualified foods, but they also receive free red meat from government food-surplus programs. With red meat prices slumping and soy prices booming (the United States is the world's largest soybean exporter), lunch directors will be keeping an eye on their bottom line.

But soy-based foods are gaining favor, with annual sales of $2.5 billion and two giant foodmakers launching new broad-market soy cereals. A USDA panel proposes soy milk be listed in the dairy group of the food pyramid.

The marketing problem for school lunch directors remains: Just don't call it "mystery meat."

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