Public health researchers find high salt, sugar content in food aid sent to Puerto Rico

A research team at the Milken Institute School of Public Health found that many foods sent to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria contained high salt, fat and sugar levels.

Uriyoan Colon-Ramos, an associate professor of nutrition who led the study, will present the findings of the team’s research at the American Society of Nutrition on Tuesday, according to a release Monday.

The team analyzed 10 consecutive days of food aid and 107 unique food items sent into Puerto Rico about six weeks after Hurricane Maria. Using photos of the emergency foods distributed in a federal distribution center in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, researchers determined that nearly 10 percent of all food aid delivered consisted of unhealthy foods, like candy or potato chips.

The team then created meal plans using the photographed foods and found that even when they excluded chips and candy, researchers were unable to create meals that did not exceed the daily limit for sodium, sugar or saturated fat found in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services.

“There is very little information on the types of emergency foods provided by federal response following disasters, probably because of the fast-paced nature of the response,” Colon-Ramos said in the release. “These foods are supposed to follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but our results show that more work is needed to meet community nutritional needs and ensure the health of families during disasters.”

She said that poor communities, which often face other social and environmental challenges, are most at risk for obesity. These communities could also have a more difficult time recovering from loss after natural disasters, she said.

“We hope that our findings bring more attention to the need for better programs aimed at protecting the health of these communities as they recuperate after disasters,” Colon-Ramos said.

She added that there are many low-sodium and low-sugar shelf stable foods that would promote healthy diets in areas affected by natural disasters, but often, these items only comprise a small proportion of the food delivered.

Going forward, the researchers plan to develop new data collection methods to determine whether the nutritional value of emergency foods is related to a community’s ability to recover after a disaster, the release states.

The study is one of two research projects related to Puerto Rico’s hurricane recovery being overseen by Milken this year. Lynn Goldman, the dean of the public health school, announced in February that researchers would evaluate the official death toll on the island after Hurricane Maria, which many have claimed has been underreported by government officials.

The New York Times reported in December that the number of fatalities may have been as high as 1,000, while an unofficial Harvard study released last month projected the number may have reached more than 4,000. The official death count sits at 64.

Goldman told The New York Times last month that the initial findings from the Milken review, which were commissioned by the Puerto Rican government, will be released later this summer, rather than in May as first announced.

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