Federal Food Aid Sent to Puerto Rico Contained Chips, Candy and other Foods High in Sugar, Salt and Fat

WASHINGTON, DC (June 11, 2018) – Researchers at the Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) at the George Washington University (GW) analyzed foods distributed in Puerto Rico as part of the federal disaster relief and recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria and determined much of the food aid failed to meet U.S. dietary guidelines for added sugars, sodium and saturated fats.  

Milken Institute SPH Associate Professor Uriyoán Colón-Ramos, ScD, MPA, presented the new research at Nutrition 2018, the American Society for Nutrition’s annual meeting in Boston.

“Our preliminary results suggest that the federal food aid sent to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria often contained chips, candy and other foods low on nutritional value,” Colón-Ramos said. “Food aid is supposed to follow national dietary guidelines, but in this case the federal response seems to have fallen short.”

The researchers photographed 10 consecutive days of food aid slated to be distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. Using the photos, they analyzed the nutritional information of 107 unique food items. The analysis revealed that close to 10 percent of those were low-nutritional value foods such as chips and candy.

Even when excluding candy and chips, people receiving federal food aid would not be able to follow federal dietary guidelines without exceeding the recommended daily limit for sodium, added sugars or saturated fats, the researchers concluded.

Consuming high levels of sodium, saturated fats and added sugars can increase the risk of health problems including obesity, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. Puerto Ricans are already at high risk for obesity and suffer in large numbers from Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. 

“A diet high in salt, added sugars and saturated fats can make it harder to maintain a healthy weight. In addition, such foods can make it harder for people with diabetes to control their blood sugar,” Colón-Ramos added.

Shelf-stable nutritious foods that meet dietary guidelines can and should be provided to places that lack refrigeration or power, according to Colón-Ramos. The researchers did find items that were low-sodium and low-sugar, but these were only a small percentage of the food aid delivered.

“Communities recovering from loss often need better nutrition to protect their health,” Colón-Ramos said. “We hope these findings lead to healthier food distributions for recovering communities in the future.”