Smart snacks: are they benefiting student health or brand marketing?

Smart Snacks Standard

In 2014, U.S. Department of Agriculture established nutrition standards for snack foods sold in schools.

Many manufacturers reformulated products to meet these Smart Snacks standards, but continue to advertise unhealthy versions of the same brands.

Furthermore, Smart Snack packaging often looks similar to less nutritious versions sold outside of schools (look-alike products).

This practice may confuse consumers about the nutritional quality of Smart Snacks and raise concerns about schools selling them.

To understand this issue better, in an online experiment, researchers from University of Connecticut recruited 659 students (13–17 years) and 859 parents (children ages 10–13).

Participants randomly viewed information about snacks sold at a hypothetical school, including (1) look-alike Smart Snacks; (2) existing store versions of the same brands; (3) repackaged Smart Snacks (highlighting differences versus unhealthy versions); or (4) consistent brands (i.e., Smart Snack versions also sold in stores).

They then rated the individual snacks offered and the school selling them. As the researchers predicted, students and parents rated look-alike and store versions similarly in taste, healthfulness, and purchase intent, while considering repackaged Smart Snacks as healthier, but less tasty.

Most participants also inaccurately believed they had seen look-alike products for sale in stores.

Furthermore, they rated schools offering look-alike Smart Snacks and store versions as less concerned about students’ health and well-being than schools in the other two conditions.

Researchers suggest that the nutritional quality of snacks sold in schools has improved, but many Smart Snacks are virtually indistinguishable from less nutritious versions widely sold outside of schools.

This practice likely benefits the brands, but may not improve children’s overall diet and undermines schools’ ability to teach good nutrition.

*USDA Smart Snack Standards.

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Citation: Harris JL, et al. (2016). Effects of Offering Look-Alike Products as Smart Snacks in Schools. Childhood Obesity, published online. DOI:10.1089/chi.2016.0080.
Figure legend: This image is credited to USDA.