Exceeding your daily Sodexho-dium intake?

If we are what we eat, it looks like students are a cafeteria-inspired blend of fats and salt

My name is Daniel Myran and I am an upper-year student with a meal plan.

It has been this way for all three years of my time at Queen’s. It isn’t that I can’t cook, and it certainly isn’t that I actually like the taste of Sodexho food, it’s simply that when it comes down to it, Sodexho has a monopoly on on-campus food and I can’t bring myself to wake up that extra 15 minutes early and pack a lunch. I imagine it’s even worse for first-year students who not only have to eat all three meals from Sodexho each day, but don’t even have a choice in the matter since the residence fee includes a meal plan for those living on main campus.

I always assumed Sodexho was pretty unhealthy. I doubt many students at Queen’s head to the cafeteria expecting a nutritious and balanced meal. To its credit, Sodexho has started posting the nutritional information for all of their foods, likely in an effort to facilitate healthy eating in the caf and elsewhere.

A nice thought, but the numbers really started to catch my eye. At first I couldn’t believe what I was seeing—could you really put that much salt and fat into foods that were “home cooked?” I was so perplexed that my first question to Joli Manson, manager of Sodexho at Queen’s, was whether or not these nutritional facts were, in fact, accurate.

Manson assured me they were, and said independent nutritionists from Sodexho’s headquarters analyze each menu item and report back with the numbers. Desserts are baked at Queen’s and are not generally examined by these nutritionists, but are assigned information in the cafeteria that is also checked for accuracy.

Before I go any farther let’s examine a real example from the cafeteria and provide you with a warning: if you plan on eating half of the foods in the cafeteria for the rest of the year, now would be a good time to stop reading.

Canada’s food guide recommends approximately 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day with a daily upper tolerable intake of 2,300 milligrams. This upper limit suggests a level that cannot be exceeded without putting yourself at a risk for health complications. You should note this figure does not differ based on weight, amount of exercise or gender.

Now, let’s look at a cafeteria offering. How about that ginger sauce by the stir fry that you’ve probably had 20 times so far this year? 2,310 milligrams of sodium. A single sauce, a condiment, takes you above your daily tolerable intake. Eat that stir fry, and regardless of what you consume for the rest of the day you’ve put yourself at risk for health complications. The average amount of sodium in each of their home-style foods is about 600-1,400 milligrams. Three meals jam-packed with sodium a day, and things start to add up.

The question becomes, who is responsible for the health of Queen’s students? Most would assume the burden of responsibility for eating healthily rests equally on themselves and their food choices, as well as on Sodexho to provide them with healthy options. Sodexho believes it’s the students who must make the decision to eat healthily, regardless of their offerings.

“We are not policing people’s food choices,” Manson said, adding that Sodexho places the responsibility of eating healthily on its customers.

“Our job is to present choice and information and allow our consumer—who we know to be educated, interested and curious—to make a good choice.” This policy puts the onus on the students to spend time educating themselves on food nutrition and to make a conscious effort to eat well. Although many students do take the easy way out, grabbing a quick burger instead of a salad, the real question is whether or not Sodexho has a responsibility to ensure student health. At what level (if any) should Sodexho draw the line? For instance, should they serve foods such as an Italian panini, which provides 90 per cent of your maximum daily sodium (2,160 milligrams), 66 per cent of your daily fat (43 grams) and 65 per cent of your saturated fat (13 grams) in one sandwich? Compare this to fast food such as McDonald’s, whose BigMac burger only has 43 percent of your daily sodium (1,020 milligrams), 45 percent of your daily fat (29 grams) and 50 percent of your saturated fat (10 grams).

Students eat food at Sodexho under the assumption that what they are eating can’t be too unhealthy—after all, it’s home cooked.

I don’t think any student at Queen’s would consider eating at McDonalds every day a healthy choice, but by eating at Sodexho you might be doing the equivalent. Incredibly unhealthy foods such as the Italian panini are just the start. The real problem comes up upon reviewing all the options Sodexho is offering and realizing the food most students probably eat on a more regular basis might not be that good for you either.

Even more concerning, Sodexho doesn’t seem to know itself which of their foods are good for you.

“Anyone who is really focused on healthy [eating] and is in a hurry in the dining hall, head to the vegan station and you can’t go wrong,” Manson said when asked how to eat healthily in the cafeteria.

Although this might seem like good advice, the vegan station generally isn’t any healthier than any of the other stations in the cafeteria. Take, for instance, the tacos served at the vegan station: every taco has 25 per cent of your daily fat intake and 40 per cent of your daily sodium intake. Problematic, especially if you take two or three.

When asked to put together three meals from the Sodexho menu that the average Queen’s student might eat, the results were quite telling. In a 2,000 calorie diet the three meals—comprised of oatmeal, tofu stir fry with ginger sauce, chicken noodle soup, chickpea tomato and green onion salad, a vegan falafel sandwich and corn poblano—had almost twice the fat, twice the cholesterol and three times the sodium recommended by Canada’s daily food guide. And this was achieved without eating any obviously unhealthy menu items, such as pizza, burgers or fried foods. More unfortunate, it’s likely the meals Manson picked were actually quite healthy (in both serving size and content) compared to what the average Queen’s student is choosing. So who cares? Most students probably aren’t particularly concerned about what’s in their food—I certainly wasn’t before I started looking at Sodexho’s food labels—and believe they can eat pretty much anything while they’re young, as long as they eat better later. This approach concerns Jeffrey Lalonde, who teaches basic human nutrition (Health 230) at Queens.

“In terms of risk factors, obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, you start predisposing yourself to these risk factors based on what you’re eating right now,” he said, adding that students who think being thin or a “healthy” weight exempts them from looking at nutritional information are mistaken.

“You can be regular weight and eat a diet high in saturated and trans fats and potentially suffer from heart disease” he said.

Although students might not be able to see any damage done by unhealthy eating, they are establishing bad habits and potentially bad health. Sodexho has taken a great first step in transparency by revealing its nutritional information to students. It has also hopefully made them realize the impacts of unhealthy eating now.

So where does this leave students, particularly first-years who really have no options outside Sodexho? The caterer isn’t going anywhere in the near future—the company’s contract with Queen’s does not go up for review until 2010.

But what can students do in the meantime? If you’re not eating well, the good news is Sodexho does offer healthy alternatives, even if they aren’t always what you want to be eating and you need to be willing to browse.You might not end up eating a hot meal all the time, but salad is pretty hard to make unhealthy.

Making good choices in the caf

Sodium: You shouldn’t consume more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day, and unfortunately sodium is the hardest to avoid. A good place to cut back on sodium is stir fry—Sodexho offers a lower sodium sauce. Sodium is a case-by-case food in the cafeteria. As a general rule, I try not to eat anything with more than 500 milligrams per serving, but have to look at labels yourself and find a balance you can live with.

Fats: There is nothing wrong with fat in your diet—too much fat is the problem. Any food with more than 30 per cent of its calories coming from fat should be avoided, a tricky feat because high levels of fat can show up in unexpected places (ie. More than just fried foods). A general recommended amount is about 70 grams daily.

Saturated Fat: Worse for you than regular fat, it can lead to high cholesterol if you consume too much. Watch for this over any other nutrition information in the cafeteria. The daily allowance is 20 grams, so any dish that’s serving more than four should probably not be consumed. The good news is most dishes in the cafeteria are not high in saturated fat.

In general: Even if you’re looking at food labels, make sure you consider portion size, as the information given is often about small portions, not a whole plate.

—Daniel Myran

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