US agriculture officials on Friday proposed new nutrition standards for school meals, including the first limits on added sugars, with a focus on limiting sweetened foods such as cereals, yogurt, flavored milk and breakfast pastries.
The plan announced by the agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, also seeks to significantly decrease sodium, making for less salty meals served to the nation’s school kids by 2029, while making the rules for foods made with whole grains more flexible.
The goal is to improve nutrition and align with US dietary guidelines in the program that serves breakfast to more than 15 million children and lunch to nearly 30 million children every day, Vilsack said.
“School meals happen to be the meals with the highest nutritional value of any meal that children can get outside the home,” Vilsack said in an interview.
The first limits on added sugars would be required in the 2025-26 school year, starting with high-sugar foods such as sweetened cereals, yogurts and flavored milks.
Under the plan, for instance, an 8oz container of chocolate milk could contain no more than 10g of sugar. Some popular flavored milks now contain twice that amount. The plan also limits items such as muffins or doughnuts to no more than twice a week at breakfast.
By the fall of 2027, added sugars in school meals would be limited to less than 10% of the total calories per week for breakfasts and lunches.
The proposal also would reduce sodium in school meals by 30% by the fall of 2029.
They would gradually be reduced to align with federal guidelines, which recommend Americans aged 14 and older limit sodium to about 2,300 milligrams a day, with less for younger children.
A typical turkey sandwich with mustard and cheese might now contain 1,500mg of sodium.
Health experts say cutting back on sugar and salt can help decrease the risk of disease in children, including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and other problems that often continue into adulthood.
Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, a trade group, said school meals are already healthier than they were a decade ago and that increased regulations are a burden, especially for small and rural school districts.
“School meal programs are at a breaking point,” she said. “These programs are simply not equipped to meet additional rules.”
Vilsack emphasized that the plan phases changes in over the next six years to allow time to adjust, but he hopes districts will move faster.
Courtney Gaines, president of the Sugar Association, said the proposal ignores the “many functional roles” sugar plays in food beyond sweetness and encourages the use of sugar substitutes, which have not been fully studied in children.
Shiriki Kumanyika, a community health expert at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health said if they’re done right some of the changes will be hard for kids to notice: “They’ll see things that they like to eat, but those foods will be healthier,” she said.