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Health authority raps municipality over plan to serve children butter, richer milk

A decision to serve semi-skimmed milk and butter to daycare and primary school children has landed the eastern Finland municipality of Sotkamo in hot water with the National Nutrition Council. The organisation says the town has run afoul of guidelines to stick to margarine and skimmed milk.

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During the autumn school term, the Finland city of Sotkamo decided to add butter and semi-skimmed milk to the menus at local daycare centres and schools. It was a move that sparked condemnation from the National Nutrition Council, a state body that has drafts national nutrition guidelines and monitors nutrition adn health in Finland.

"The statutory task of the municipality is to promote the wellbeing of its residents. Nutritional recommendations also give the Sotkamo municipality a good foundation for making responsible decisions in this area. It is a question of residents' health and health care expenses," says council chair Sebastian Hielm, who also makes the point that the national recommendations are based on over 2,300 scientific articles and contributions from more than 100 nutritional experts.

A group of doctors, nutritionists and specialists also called on the city to reverse the decision, complaining that it contradicted official nutritional guidelines.

Responding to feedback from residents

Sotkamo's municipal director Mika Kilpeläinen admitted that the decision to use richer dairy products was rushed and unusual.

"I can't think of a similar situation during my term in office, where decision-making at this level has considered something without any prior prep work," he said. 

However municipal board chair Juho Lukkari, says he is surprised that the issue generated so much heat, saying that it represented popular sentiment.

"We just wanted to respond to feedback we had received from our residents. We aren't out to dismantle the National Institute for Health and Welfare's (THL's) nutritional recommendations. The dairy products would just be another option that is available. The National Nutrition Council's letter gives the impression that we are trying to replace fat-free products entirely. This is not true," Lukkari says.

Director Kilpeläinen says that new plans have been made to review the decision again in Sotkamo's technical and education and culture committees.

"We need to discuss this further, and take the time to make a rational decision. It is good to hear the viewpoint of the [education] committee, because children and adolescents are their area of responsibility, whereas the technical committee is responsible for producing daily meals."

A bigger food bill for Sotkamo

The plan to add butter and semi-skimmed milk to the school and daycare selection has not yet been implemented, because of the open request to overturn the decision, although the municipal board has rejected the complaint. The board says it based its decision on several studies that challenge the THL guidelines.

"The board's decision can be appealed to the administrative court within the next two weeks. It won't be implemented until it has been declared legally valid. If they appeal, it could take up to 18 months," says Kilpeläinen.

If the decision is allowed to stand, Sotkamo is expecting the wider variety of dairy products to cost the city about 10,000 euros annually, depending on their eventual use. The municipality's food bill will also swell because state aid for school milk is only available for normal, lactose-free and organic versions of skimmed milk and buttermilk that has been supplemented with Vitamin D. 

Kids don't need more saturated fats

The National Nutrition Council recommends serving  skimmed milk with Vitamin D to children in daycare and schools. It says a semi-skimmed alternative adds the fat equivalent of a lump of butter to children's diet, a problem in a country in which about 20 percent of children are already estimated to be overweight. The Council defends its margarine recommendation on similar grounds, saying that it contains a maximum of just 30 percent saturated fats.

"Children have no need for the saturated fatty acids found in milk and butter. Hard fats adversely affect lipid levels, raising the amounts of harmful cholesterol levels in the blood. Saturated fat also predisposes people to blood-sugar disorders and high blood pressure. This happens in childhood if the diet contains too many fats," the Council's statement reads.

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