Features Policy

March 3, 2013 at 7:00 am

How Pizza Became a Vegetable

Are two tablespoons of tomato sauce a healthy choice to feed your kids and provide them with the proper vegetable intake they need to grow up healthy and strong? The answer given by Congress in 2011 was a resounding yes.

While Congress did not explicitly declare a slice of pizza as a veggie for schoolchildren, they did bend to the influence of corporate food lobbyists to keep tomato sauce as a vegetable serving, allowing the frozen food producers of America to keep serving it to millions of young people.

With all the nutritional requirements of plastic people!

School Lunches

To understand the process that led to the tomato paste debacle, it’s important to understand the role government plays in overseeing what we eat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is charged with a wide array of food-related regulatory priorities. With over thirty agencies and offices, the department is tasked by Congress to enforce health and safety laws for our food, water, and farms while punishing those who run afoul of its many rules and regulations. Not only must Congress keep our food safe, it should keep us healthy and take the lead role in preventing the many health problems associated with poor nutritional habits: obesity alone costs the U.S. about $200 billion per year in healthcare, not to mention the untold impacts of diabetes, hypertension, and cardiac problems that correlate with poor nutrition.

One way Congress does this is by providing healthy meals for kids. Since 1946, USDA has administered the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to relieve hunger by providing subsides for schools to purchase meals for its low-income students. Today it operates in over 100,000 schools giving 31 million schoolchildren free or low-cost lunches every day.

Congress authorizes and oversees this program and one would only hope that our elected officials would work to ensure these were healthy meals that met caloric, protein, and vitamin requirements so students who were already vulnerable due to their economic circumstances were not fed a salty, sugary diet that would leave their taste buds hooked on junk food at an early age. When USDA, along with First Lady Michelle Obama and Congress, tried to up the nutrition standards of NSLP in 2011, they faced an onslaught of lobbying that sought to keep the fatty stuff on kids’ plates.

Part of First Lady Obama’s policy initiatives since 2008 election have been to fight childhood obesity and ensure proper nutrition and exercise among America’s youth. Her Let’s Move campaign has been working with state and local officials to produce policy results to this end. One major effort she undertook was to work directly with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to update NSLP’s nutritional requirements to bring them in line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a host of nutritional recommendations published by USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (the folks behind the Food Pyramid and its more recent incarnation, MyPlate). They recommend 3-5 servings of vegetables per day, and even list tomato paste as a “Selected Food Source,” noting its fiber and potassium contents. Pizza, on the other hand, is specifically criticized in the guidelines for being a “refined grain product…high in calories from solid fats and/or added sugars” that should be avoided. So why is pizza still on the menu for hungry poor kids?

Empty nutrition, empty plates

Lobbying for Tomato Paste

As the guidelines were being developed, the USDA wanted to change the way tomato paste was defined and measured as a vegetable. Under the original rules, one eighth of a cup of tomato paste counted as one half cup of vegetables, essentially inflating its serving size, making it easier for pizza to be made with ingredients that have a serving of “vegetables.” In January 2011, the USDA proposed to change this rule with a filing in the Federal Register, seeking to count such purees based on “volume as served” so schools could no longer count the tomato puree as a half-vegetable serving. USDA was attempting to correct the unfair credit when delineating required daily servings of vegetables and so the paste was measured on par with similar purees (it was argued that tomato pasted should get extra credit since it creates “more of a vegetable” when mixed with water).

A report by the L.A. Times found that the American Frozen Food Institute played a major role in blocking this proposed rule change along with Schwan’s Food Service, a provider of frozen pizzas to many schools. 2011 saw the Frozen Food Institute spend more on lobbying than any other year since the Center for Responsive Politics began keeping track their expenditures in 1998. It spent $543,000 lobbying against the tomato paste restriction and for other interests of its members. Their efforts prevailed and the final language of the bill passed at the end of 2011 scrapped the tomato paste provision, delayed USDA efforts to reduce sodium in kids’ meals, and made it harder for the government to put more whole grains in meals provided through the National School Lunch Program.

“None of the funds made available by this Act,” wrote Congress, “may be used to implement an interim final or final rule” that attempted to measure tomato paste by volume. With that, all effort to create stricter nutritional requirements for schoolchildren were crushed.

The tomato paste rule caught headlines because of the absurdity of conceiving pizza as a vegetable. What’s really startling (beyond the nutritional quackery) is the weight and influence of the food lobby: spending an entire year and untold sums of money to block one simple rule change from USDA designed to make our children healthy. If big pizza has the time and money to worry about tomato paste, consumers can only wonder what other legitimate regulations designed to protect their health are being spurned by the unelected operatives of the agribusiness lobbying machine.

The food lobby’s fight to keep us hooked on sweets continues today as President Obama’s health care overhaul seeks to implement new consumer health protections and the industry tries to squash them. (No, lobbying doesn’t stop once the bill is passed.) The National Restaurant Association and the American Pizza Community are actively blocking FDA rules borne of the Affordable Care Act that mandate caloric information to be posted in chain restaurants, vending machines and grocery stores, citing the impossibility of calculating calorie counts for the “34 million ways to make a pizza.”

As government continues to respond to the obesity crisis in this country and nudges Americans towards wholesome eating habits, purveyors of lard will continue to pressure lawmakers and bureaucrats alike to keep Americans in the dark.  While individual responsibly is key to health and longevity, the consumer can’t be blamed when corporate interests dictate menu options. We trust government to regulate for our best interests and few areas are as vital to our well being as the food we consume.

Jacob Day