How San Luis Coastal Unified uses local extracts to cut back on added sugar in meals

The district is using vanilla, maple and other extracts and powders to bring flavor to recipes without any added sugar.
 blueberry sauce
Vanilla and maple extracts are used in the district's homemade blueberry sauce. | Photos courtesy of San Luis Coastal Unified School District

The nutrition team at San Luis Coastal Unified School District in San Luis Obispo, Calif., has found a sweet way to reduce added sugar in its school meals. 

The team began partnering with Cook Flavoring Company, a local flavoring and extracts business during the 2021-2022 school year. 

Food Service Director Erin Primer first heard about the company after driving by it countless times in her neighborhood. Housed in a building with no windows or signage except for a calligraphy L on the facade, she had always wondered what was inside. She finally found the answer after someone posted that it was a vanilla bottling factory on social media.

Upon finding out that the building belonged to a flavor and extracts company, Primer immediately reach out to see if they would be interested in working with the school district. 

“I wound up sending them an email and saying, ‘Hey, I see you do some bulk wholesale orders. Have you ever worked with a school district? Could we tap into that? Can we access your your wholesale catalog? And they said, ‘Yes, of course,” she says.  

Cook’s extracts and powders are now found throughout the menu at the district and have allowed the nutrition team to incorporate bold flavors into their meals without including any added sugar.  

Starting small

Primer’s first order placed with the company included some of the powders and small bottles of different extracts, including vanilla, maple, orange, lemon, almond and blackberry.

“I really didn't know what we were going to do with any of these things,” she says. “But I thought it was really neat that this was in our backyard."

After playing around with the products, Primer and the team now utilize them on the menu in a variety of different ways. 

Some of the powders, for example, end up as toppings for oatmeal, while the extracts often find their way into different baked goods and sauces, including the team’s homemade blueberry sauce. 

“We're using a little bit of vanilla and then maple extract so that [the sauce] has that sweet flavor and mimics sugar without adding additional sugar,” says Primer. 

The vanilla extract also gives an added punch to smoothies as well. 

“[If you add] vanilla yogurt, a little orange juice, some applesauce and throw in some of that vanilla, you got a winner that is fairly easy to do,” she notes.

Vanilla extract
The extracts are used in a variety of baked goods. 

Weighing the costs and benefits 

Primer typically purchases the extracts in 1 gallon bottles, which take about one to two months to go through. 

When compared to a prefabricated product such as maple syrup, the extracts may cost more upfront, but because so little of the extract is needed to flavor a dish, it ends up not impacting the bottom line as much as it would seem. 

“On one hand, we have a prefabricated product that's a lower quality and maybe fairly inexpensive, and on the other hand, we've got a product that’s maybe more expensive to procure, but you don't need as much to get that flavor,” says Primer. 

Choosing to work with the extracts over a prefabricated product also has added benefits for employees Primer adds, since staff can easily learn how to use the extracts in recipes. 

“I think the beauty of the flavoring extracts is that it's very simple,” she says. “These are not overly complicated ways to invest in labor or to make a recipe.” 

The extracts will also aid the nutrition team as it continues to find ways to cut back on added sugar. San Luis Coastal USD has its own internal added sugar limit of no more than 12 grams of added sugar per 2 ounce grain serving. 

Other nutrition teams throughout the country may also need to reduce the amount of added sugar on their menus soon if the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) decides to implement added sugar restrictions as part of its update to the School Nutrition Standards. 

Regardless of whether or not the USDA goes through with added sugar limits, Primer believes that out of the box ideas like working with extracts will be essential going forward as school nutrition programs continue to evolve. 

“The more we can have these these tips and tricks — like extracts and powders and things that mimic these flavor profiles, but still get kids to eat healthy, delicious, fresh, whole real foods, I think that's what this is about,” she says. “It's tricking the palate, but in a way that is not detrimental to our health.”