When it comes to the nutrition standards for school meals in the U.S., we often hear about whole grains, sodium, and fat, but added sugars aren’t something that gets too much attention. Yet a new study backs up what experts have been concerned about for years: school meals are too high in added sugars.
The study, published in January in the journal Nutrients, found that 92% of schools exceed the limit on added sugars at breakfast while 69% exceed the limit at lunch.
Researchers also found that more than 62% of children consume breakfasts and 47% consume lunches that are too high in added sugars.
WHY ARE ADDED SUGARS BAD?
Added sugars are any type of ingredient that sweetens foods and beverages—whether you can taste it or not.
Added sugars are sneaky and can show up in everything from yogurt to salad dressing and hide under least 61 different names.
Consumption of added sugars has been linked to childhood obesity, type-2 diabetes, risk factors for cardiovascular disease, fatty liver disease, as well as poor diet quality, and of course, cavities.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-25 state that starting at age 2, added sugars should make up less than 10 percent of our total calories for the day.
ADDED SUGARS IN SCHOOL MEALS
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 made a lot of positive changes to school meals, such as putting in place standards for calories, sodium levels, and fat, and included adding whole grains and more fruits and vegetables.
The standards didn’t set a limit on added sugars, but flavored milk, for example, was limited to non-fat milk.
Through the years, however, there have been several rollbacks and proposed rules by the Trump Administration, which have increased the amount of added sugars in school meals.
WHICH FOODS IN SCHOOL MEALS ARE HIGH IN ADDED SUGARS?
For the study, researchers used the School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study (SNMCS), a national, comprehensive study of the school breakfast and lunch programs, and looked at data between 2014 and 2015 from 48 states and Washington D.C.
According to the study, flavored skim milk—chocolate milk and strawberry milk—are the leading sources of added sugars in both school breakfasts and lunches.
In fact, they contribute 29% of added sugars in breakfast and 47% in lunch.
The other leading sources of added sugars in school meals are mostly at breakfast:
- Sweetened cereals (13%)
- Syrup, jelly, and jam (12%)
- Muffins and sweet/quick breads (7%)
- Granola and breakfast bars (5%)
Sources of added sugars in school lunch include:
- Lunch condiments and toppings (9%)
- Flavored 1% milk and breads, rolls, bagels, and other plain breads (3%)
LEARN MORE ABOUT ADDED SUGARS IN SCHOOL MEALS ON “FOOD ISSUES”
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Colin Schwartz, Deputy Director of Legislative Affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and co-author on this study, on the “Food Issues” podcast.
In the episode, we talk about added sugars in school meals as well as USDA meal waivers during COVID-19, the weakening of school nutrition standards, competitive foods, universal school meals, and what parents can do to educate themselves and advocate for healthier school meals.
Listen to the episode here or on your favorite podcasting site. If you like the episode, please leave a review and a rating.