New Rules to Limit Sugar, Sodium in School Meals

New nutrition standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will limit added sugar in school meals in an effort to reduce diet-related diseases.

K-12 schools serve meals to nearly 30 million children every school day. These meals are the main source of nutrition for more than half of these children.

The new standards, finalized earlier this week, are part of the Biden administration’s national strategy to end hunger and reduce diet-related disease by 2030.

“Like teachers, classrooms, books, and computers, nutritious school meals are an essential part of the school environment, and when we raise the bar for school meals, it empowers our kids to achieve greater success inside and outside of the classroom,” Tom Vilsack, an agriculture secretary, said in a statement.

The new rules require limiting added sugars in school meals nationwide. Minor changes will be made by fall 2025, and the full implementation of the nutrition overhaul is expected by fall 2027.

The consumption of added sugars is strongly associated with increased cardiovascular disease risk in children through higher energy intake, increased body weight, and the imbalance of lipids. Moreover, high intake of added sugars puts children at risk for tooth decay, type 2 diabetes, and fatty liver disease.

Although added sugars can be safely consumed in low amounts as part of a balanced diet, few children achieve safe levels.

Reducing added sugars will start with cereals and yogurts, as research shows that added sugars are most commonly found in typical school breakfast items. Additionally, there will be a new limit on added sugars in flavored milk served at breakfast and lunch.

Starting this fall, it will be easier for schools to serve protein-rich breakfast foods such as yogurt, tofu, eggs, nuts, and seeds. The change is expected to help decrease sugary food options while supporting vegetarian diets and other food preferences.

Efforts to reduce sodium intake

By the fall of 2027, schools will need to slightly reduce the sodium content of their meals. Eating too much sodium is linked to increased blood pressure in children and teens, especially if they are overweight or obese. High blood pressure in children may result in the early development of heart disease and elevated risk for premature death.

On average, children and adolescents eat over 3,100 mg of sodium daily — double the amount recommended by the American Heart Association. Most of this sodium comes from processed, packaged, and prepared foods, such as pizzas, sandwiches, and snacks.

The new standard marks the shift to local foods. Schools can now require unprocessed agricultural products to be locally grown, raised, or caught when making purchases for school meal programs.

Moreover, the new rules limit the percentage of non-domestic grown and produced foods schools can purchase.

School meals will continue to emphasize fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to ensure the right balance of nutrients.

In the United States, the proportion of children with low-quality diets decreased from 77% to 56% between 1999 and 2016, with adolescents aged 12 to 19 having worse diet quality compared to younger children, a study found.

The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service administrator Cindy Long said, “These updates also make it easier for schools to access locally sourced products, benefiting both schools and the local economy.”

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