Consumer Reports calls on USDA to remove Lunchables products from school meals after finding heavy metals in store-bought versions

The watchdog group also found that Lunchables products served under the National School Lunch Program had higher levels of sodium than their grocery store counterparts.
Consumer Reports found that store-bought Lunchables products tested positive for lead and other heavy metals. | Photo: Shutterstock

Consumer Reports is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to remove Lunchables sold under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) after finding that the NSLP versions of the products had high amounts of sodium and the store-bought versions of the kits had detectable levels of lead and other chemicals.

The watchdog group tested Lunchables products found in stores along with other types of meal kits geared towards kids. They also looked at the nutritional information for store-bought Lunchables and those sold under the NSLP. They found that NSLP versions of Lunchables contained higher levels of sodium compared to their grocery store counterparts.

The NSLP version of its Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stackers, for example, contains 930mg of sodium, while the grocery store version has 740mg of sodium.

In a statement to FoodService Director, Kraft Heinz said it stands by the quality of its Lunchables products and that those offered through the NSLP meet USDA requirements.

“The National School Lunch Program-approved Lunchables adhere to all USDA standards. We increased the amount of meat in the products to increase protein levels and help fuel kids throughout the day,” the company said. “With more meat comes naturally elevated levels of sodium to ensure safe preservation of the product.”

Consumer Reports also tested lunch kits made by other manufactures and the Lunchables kits sold in stores for the presence of metals and phthalates, a family of chemicals that have been linked to a variety of health issues. The group detected levels of lead, cadmium, or both in all the kits and found phthalates in all but one of the kits.

None of the products tested exceeded regulatory limits of heavy metals allowed in products, however, if eaten, five of the 12 kits would expose consumers to at least half or more of California’s maximum allowable dose level for lead or cadmium, according to Consumer Reports.

Kraft-Heinz shared that the metals the group tested are naturally occurring and therefore can be present in any food product.

We do not add these elements to our products,” the company stated.

Consumer Reports did not test the NSLP versions of Lunchables for heavy metals or phthalates. Still, they are urging the USDA to no longer offer the products through the NSLP and have created an online petition for their removal that has already garnered over 16,000 signatures as of Thursday.

“Lunchables are not a healthy option for kids and shouldn’t be allowed on the menu as part of the National School Lunch Program,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports, in a statement. “The Lunchables and similar lunch kits we tested contain concerning levels of sodium and harmful chemicals that can lead to serious health problems over time. The USDA should remove Lunchables from the National School Lunch Program and ensure that kids in schools have healthier options.”

Originally found on grocery store shelves, Lunchables made their first foray into the school lunch line this school year after Kraft Heinz revamped the recipes for its Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stackers and Extra Cheesy Pizza to fit NSLP guidelines.

Sodium in school meals is currently under the spotlight as the USDA gears up to announce a final rule this month on its updated School Nutrition Standards.

In a proposed rule on the standards released last year, the USDA revealed it was considering further restrictions on sodium in school meals. Sodium limits in school meals vary by grade level. Currently, the weekly limit for sodium in school lunch is
1,110 mg for elementary students, 1,225 mg  for middle school students and 1,280 mg for high school students.

Under the USDA’s proposed rule, weekly sodium limits for lunch would be further reduced by 30% for all grade levels over a period of five years.

If these new limits were to go into effect, it could make it harder for school nutrition operators to continue offering Lunchables as a menu option.



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