The Five Most Unhealthful School Breakfasts
A Report from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
As schools across the country prepared to celebrate National School Breakfast Week, nutrition experts with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) evaluated meals offered under the National School Breakfast Program and found that some commonly served items may put children’s health at risk.
The National School Breakfast Program serves 12 million students a day. These meals offer crucial nutrition to hungry youngsters, but some items contain more cholesterol, calories from fat, or sodium than a child should consume for breakfast, according to the Institute of Medicine. Many contain processed meats, which increase cancer and diabetes risk. High-fat, meaty school breakfasts can hurt students’ health and academic achievements. About 12.5 million American children and adolescents are obese. One in three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in his or her life. Diets high in fat, sodium, and sugar can result in poor school performance.
After reviewing breakfast menus from 30 school districts across the country, PCRM nutrition experts found that many items were high in fat, sodium, and cholesterol. More than 90 percent of districts served processed meats, which increase the risk of cancer later in life. The five worst school breakfasts are:
|Five Worst School Breakfasts Nutrition Shocker|
|Ham, Egg, and Cheese Biscuit||1,792 milligrams of sodium—more than some children should consume in an entire day—and more calories and saturated fat than a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin|
|Cheesy Scrambled Eggs||Derives 63 percent of calories from fat|
|Sausage, Egg, and Cheese Whole-Grain Sandwich||More sodium than Burger King’s BK Breakfast Muffin Sandwich with sausage, egg, and cheese|
|Maple-Flavored Pork Pancake Wrap||More calories, fat, and saturated fat than IHOP’s Jr. Scrambled Egg & Pancake breakfast|
|Glazed Raised Donut||Derives 50 percent of calories from fat|
Unhealthful options were common on school breakfast menus. More than half the districts surveyed by PCRM served the Ham, Egg, and Cheese Biscuit—which has more sodium than some children should consume in an entire day and twice the recommended percentage of calories from fat—or an equivalent sandwich.
Ninety-three percent of the school districts surveyed by PCRM regularly served bacon, sausage, or other processed meats for breakfast. More than a third of the districts served processed meats at breakfast three to five times a week.
Processed meat consumption increases the risk of colorectal cancer, according to a large number of studies, including the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study. Processed meats also raise the risk of pancreatic cancer, according to a recent meta-analysis in the British Journal of Cancer. And consuming processed meats increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, according a 2011 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which also found that the more processed meat a person eat, the greater the diabetes risk.
Only 30 percent of schools offered low-fat, healthy options like oatmeal or other hot cereals.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently unveiled new guidelines for school meals that will raise standards for the first time in more than 15 years. But schools still have the discretion to offer processed meats, cheese, and other unhealthful foods.
The guidelines do require schools to serve fruits and vegetables every day, offer more whole-grain items, and reduce the amounts of saturated fat and sodium served to children. But schools do not have to begin phasing in the improvements until next year and will have up to three years to make the changes.
|Breakfast Meal Pattern: Daily Amount Based on the Average for a Five-Day Week
Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs
|Grades K-5||Grades 6-8||Grades 9-12|
(% of total calories)
|< 10%||< 10%||< 10%|
|Sodium (mg)||< 430||< 470||< 500|
These guidelines reflect a 2009 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report written at the request of the USDA to provide recommenda¬tions to revise standards and requirements so that school meals are more healthful. The report also suggests that school breakfasts should have less than 65 milligrams of cholesterol and not exceed 25 to 35 percent of calories from fat.
The School Breakfast Program is administered in more than 88,000 schools and institutions. School districts and independent schools that take part in the breakfast program receive cash subsidies from the USDA for each meal they serve.
Nutrition experts with PCRM collected and analyzed school menus from 30 school districts, including rural, urban, and suburban districts in all regions of the continental United States. PCRM obtained nutrition information by reviewing analyses available on school district websites and data from the USDA. PCRM’s experts evaluated menu items based on key nutritional data, including the item’s calories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar. Ratings also reflect whether the breakfast contains processed meats, such as bacon or sausage, because processed meat consumption has been linked to increased risk of diabetes and colorectal cancer.
Detailed Results: Five Worst School Breakfasts
1. Ham, Egg, and Cheese Biscuit
438 calories, 24 grams of fat, 49 percent of calories from fat, 12.5 grams of saturated fat, 115 milligrams of cholesterol, 1,792 milligrams of sodium, contains processed meat
This commonly served item has more calories, fat, and saturated fat than a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin. The Ham, Egg, and Cheese Biscuit contains more sodium than some children should consume in an entire day, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. It has double the IOM’s maximum recommended percent of calories from fat in a school breakfast. This sandwich, served in more than half the school districts surveyed by PCRM, also contains the most saturated fat of any item in the report. Saturated (“bad”) fat increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Cheese is the number-one source of saturated fat in the American diet. This item also contains processed meat, which increases cancer and diabetes risk.
2. Cheesy Scrambled Eggs
241 calories, 17 grams of fat, 63 percent of calories from fat, 9 grams of saturated fat, 391 milligrams of cholesterol, 408 milligrams of sodium
This breakfast derives 63 percent of calories from fat and contains more than six times the IOM’s recommended maximum amount of cholesterol for a school breakfast. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that one in five teens has an abnormal cholesterol level.
3. Sausage, Egg, and Cheese Whole-Grain Sandwich
294 calories, 13.7 grams of fat, 42 percent of calories from fat, 6.7 grams of saturated fat, 132 milligrams of cholesterol, 1,079 milligrams of sodium, contains processed meat
This sandwich has more sodium than Burger King’s BK Breakfast Muffin Sandwich with sausage, egg, and cheese. The new school breakfast nutrition standards recommend no more than 430 to 500 milligrams of sodium per breakfast. This biscuit contains more than three to four times that recommendation. Diets high in sodium can increase the risk of high blood pressure, a condition that can lead to cardiovascular disease and kidney problems. This item also contains processed meat, which has been linked to increased risk of colorectal cancer.
4. Maple-Flavored Pork Pancake Wrap
210 calories, 10 grams of fat, 43 percent of calories from fat, 3.5 grams of saturated fat, 15 milligrams of cholesterol, 470 milligrams of sodium, 8 grams of sugar, contains processed meat
This item derives 43 percent of calories from fat and contains processed meat. Ninety-three percent of the schools PCRM surveyed serve sausage or other processed meats at breakfast. The IOM has raised concerns about the use of processed meats in school meals because of cancer risk. Consuming processed meats increases the risk of colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, type 2 diabetes.
5. Glazed Raised Donut
345 calories, 19 grams of fat, 50 percent of calories from fat, 9 grams of saturated fat, 7 milligrams of cholesterol, 457 milligrams of sodium, 13 grams of sugar
This donut derives more than half of its calories from fat and is loaded with sugar. The consumption of added sugars, which are sweeteners added to processed and prepared foods, has been associated with measures of cardiovascular disease risk among adolescents, including adverse cholesterol concentrations, according to a new report from the CDC.
Improving the Healthfulness of School Breakfasts
Parents can work with the food service staff to help schools offer more healthful school breakfasts. They can also encourage their children to request low-fat, plant-based breakfasts. Demand for these items will encourage schools to incorporate healthier foods into their menu cycles. In the meantime, students should look for breakfast items such as oatmeal, fruit, whole-grain cereals, bagels, or toast, and nondairy beverages.