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New study shows that students consume better diets when states mandate Smart Snacks in School standards

Turner in a school cafeteria
Lindsey Turner poses in a Boise School lunchroom photos. Photo Carrie Quinney

New research – the first of its kind – conducted by Boise State University research professor Lindsey Turner shows that students who attended school in states with laws requiring schools to implement federal “Smart Snack” standards had significantly better diets, with an average of 54 fewer calories per day consumption of solid fats and added sugars.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting consumption of empty calories from foods and beverages that contain solid fats and added sugars. As directed by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture issued updated standards for school meals in 2012 and new standards for all foods and beverages sold at other locations in schools in 2013. Those latter standards, called the “Smart Snacks in School” standards, aimed to improve the diets of U.S. children and adolescents by reducing the availability in schools of calorie-laden snacks with high amounts of fats, added sugar and sodium.

The new study, which was released today in JAMA Network Open, is based on nationally representative data from 1,959 students in grades 1-12 from 290 public schools in 30 states and the District of Columbia. The students all completed a 24-hour dietary recall. Of the group, 420 students (22.5 percent) attended school in one of seven states or districts with Smart Snacks laws (Arkansas, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Mississippi and Utah). Additionally, 528 students (26.1 percent) reported consuming snacks obtained at school on the day of reporting.

The study also found no significant difference in students’ overall daily energy intake (total kilocalories), or sodium intake. This is the first national study to examine differences in students’ diets based on whether state-level laws require implementation of Smart Snacks.

“Smart Snacks was a big policy change affecting schools, and these results show significant and important differences in students’ diets,” said Turner, lead author of the study and co-investigator for the National Wellness Policy Study, which conducted the analyses.

The study was funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, which also funded the collection of the nationally representative student data as part of the School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study in 2014-15. Analytic weights were applied and all percentages reported are weighted. Analyses were conducted from March 1, 2018, to Dec. 12, 2019.

Turner collaborated on the project with long-time colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“A key goal of our study was to explore whether state-level laws can support the implementation of large-scale policy change at the federal level, such as the Smart Snacks in School standards. Our study shows that state-level policy and federal policy can work together to benefit student health,” Turner said.