School Lunches: How Can Something That Tastes Like One be so Hard to Make?

Editor's note: Apparently, feeding kids is a lot more complicated than tossing them a box of Pop-Tarts and a 3-liter jug of root beer. Who knew? For the breeders among you readers, here's a wrap-up of newsy, nutritional items Hanna shipped in from the School Nutrition Association conference under way this week in Dallas. Bon appétit. (French for "Where's the damn Pop-Tarts?)

Cut the Salt "Do you notice anything different about me?" a Heinz ketchup bottle-shaped robotic figure, who appeared to be kin to Mystery Science Theater 3000's Tom Servo, asked a school nutritionist at the School Nutrition Association conference's exhibit hall. "I have 15 percent less sodium!"

The ketchup bottle's fellow mascots roaming the hall, including the Pillsbury Doughboy and Chester Cheetah, were telling attendees the same story, bringing their pitches in tune with the latest USDA guidelines on sodium in school lunches.

But the new directives have proved perplexing for an industry that's long relied on salt for flavor. Many of the heralded low-sodium meatballs and pizza wedges on offer at this week's show tasted sort of icky.

That's why condiment companies such as Heinz and Kikkoman are pushing slightly exotic spreads and sauces they say can supplant the deleted salt.

"That's where this is going," Kikkoman's Chris Neary says, motioning at a row of tubs containing Thai yellow curry, Tikka masala curry and Thai red curry. Kikkoman's now selling what Neary calls the first institutional Sriracha, the chili sauce most shoppers associate with a rooster-fronted bottle.

"You can put it on chicken wings or make a sandwich spread with 50-50 mayo," Neary says.

In addition to revised ketchup, Heinz is also promoting a Shanghai chili sauce along with a Buffalo hot sauce dip and Southwestern chipotle sauce.

Kikkoman's newest product is a citrus-flavored ponzu sauce, which Neary says has less sodium than the company's reduced-sodium soy.

"You don't need to get rid of the flavor," he insists.

Hold the Soda. Keep the Fizz. The banning of soft drinks from school campuses has created a niche for new kid-friendly drinks, and dozens of drink companies exhibiting at the conference are itching to fill it.

Vendors promoting fizzy fruit juices, fortified waters, flavored milks, bright-colored ices and traditional iced teas made sure event attendees stayed extraordinarily well-hydrated. The beverage buzzwords this year are "low sugar" and "all-natural," a trend spurred by recent legislation.

"I'm formulating a drink right now for New York," reveals Kurt Ruppman, CEO of Plano's Drinks Unique, a subsidiary of True Brew Organic. "They've gone so nutty there, they make the California people look normal."

Ruppman's company already sells its teas in Kroger and Whole Foods, and the school market represents "a major expansion." Although Ruppman says it's not easy to comply with nutritional standards-- "The school says we can't have more than 25 calories," he grumbles. "Dang water's almost 25 calories." -- the potential payoff's worth the effort.

Drinks Unique is now manufacturing a variety of lemonades, peach white tea, hibiscus tea and sweet tea for students. The flavors were all child-approved, Ruppman says.

"A kid's not going to drink green tea," Ruppman says. "If he's going to drink unsweetened green tea, let him chew on the lawn."

Greek to Them A leading Greek yogurt manufacturer is revamping its product for children.

Chobani, which introduced its Champions line earlier this year, is now trying to get the 4-ounce cups into schools. Spokesperson Frances Wheeler said nutritionists at the School Nutrition Association conference seemed to have varying degrees of familiarity with Greek yogurt, which is strained differently than classic American yogurts.

"I guess it just depends on the person," Wheeler says.

Chobani Champions, advertised as "the first Greek yogurt for kids," is blended. The adult version is packaged with fruit or honey on the bottom.

That's because all hypotheses about children wanting to find a surprise at the bottom of their cups are wrong, Wheeler says. Kids apparently prefer their foods smeared and smushed.

"Research shows kids like their products blended," she says.

But will kids like the thick and creamy yogurt, even with berries or honey and bananas blended into it? Right now, it seems everyone likes Greek yogurt, which is at the pinnacle of its popularity. Choabani's sales spiked 450 percent last year. As a Yoplait spokesperson told a Philadelphia Daily News reporter this spring: "Greek is chic right now."

Trojan Fruits and Veggies Apparently despairing of ever getting their charges to eat healthy food and like it too, some school nutritionists are embracing fruits and vegetables with no discernible fruit or vegetable flavor.

"It's not that we want all vegetables eaten in a stealth way, but at least you know they're getting their nutrients," Lori Asbury of Hidden Healthies.

School menu planners, who have to satisfy government regulators and finicky children on breathtakingly tight budgets, apparently can't be bothered with inculcating a passion for fresh produce. Nor can they afford to self-righteously reject industrial versions of the old broccoli-in-the-casserole trick.

Asbury's company disguises vegetables in marinara sauce, sloppy Joe mix and nacho cheese, which is made with a puree of butternut squash, white beans and sweet potatoes. While Asbury reports many districts pour the cheese over potatoes, she points out "you can serve it as nachos, and it counts as a vegetable even if they take the tomatoes off."

Unlike Hidden Healthies' innocuous-looking dishes, Crazy Apples' product looks like an apple. But it doesn't taste like it.

"That one's not there yet for the adult flavor profile," Libby Rives admits after I spit out my first taste of a bubble gum-flavored Washington apple. "That one's for the kids."

So are the other flavors in Crazy Apples' line-up, which includes "tropical blast," lemon-lime, pomegranate grape and -- just in time for Christmas -- peppermint stick.

"In fall, kids are getting sick of apples," Rives explains.

The re-flavored fruit movement started with the Grapple, which sports a grape-flavored peel.

"But our flavor permeates the flesh," says Rives, who refuses to detail the process except to say it doesn't involve needles.

Crazy Apples, which started selling just last fall, is now working to place its tweaked fruit in grocery stores.

"Anything to get fruit on kids' plates," Rives says.

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