USDA proposes limiting sugar in school meals

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on February 3 a proposal to revamp nutrition standards, limiting the amounts of sugar in school meals. The proposal would limit added sugars in certain products and eventually the weekly menu and allow flavored milk with limits on added sugar.

The standards, if adopted, would reduce sugar gradually. Under the proposal, added sugars in some highly sweetened items like prepackaged cereals, yogurt, and baked goods would be limited in the 2025-2026 school year. Flavored milk would also be allowed with "reasonable limits on added sugars."

Over time, the guidelines would limit added sugars in all items served at school in the weekly menu. Under the current proposal, in the 2027-2028 school year, added sugars would be limited to less than 10% of calories per week for breakfast and lunch.

Limiting sugar intake can help prevent tooth decay and reduce the risk of other medical conditions, including diabetes and obesity. The dietary guidelines for Americans recommend limiting one's intake of added sugars to less than 10% of their daily calorie intake, but as of now, there are no limits on added sugar in school meal programs.

"USDA has determined that calorie limits alone are not enough to meet recommendations for limiting children's intake of added sugars," the proposed rule states. "USDA expects that a targeted limit would better support reducing added sugars in school meals, especially breakfast."

The proposed standard would limit breakfast cereals to no more than 6 g of added sugars per dry oz and yogurts to no more than 12 g of added sugar per 6 oz. Additionally, flavored milk would be restricted to no more than 10 g of added sugars per 8 fl oz, except for milk sold as a competitive food in middle and high schools, where the limit would be increased to 15 g of added sugar per 12 fl oz.

The proposal also includes a short note on sugar-sweetened beverages, noting that tooth decay and cavities are associated with sugary drink consumption and that flavored milk is the top source of added sugar in school meals.

In addition, the proposal sets limits for salt intake. By 2029, the amount of salt in school lunch items would be cut by 30%.

"The gradual, phased-in approach proposed in this rulemaking is expected to make implementation of the added sugars standards achievable for schools," the proposed rule states.

Representatives from the agriculture department said changes are being considered to improve nutrition and conform with U.S. dietary guidelines. Additionally, the department proposes making the rules for whole grain foods more flexible, according to reports.

Stakeholders can submit comments on the proposed rule through April 10.

"USDA understands that thoughtful implementation of the updates will take time and teamwork," Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services said, in the press release. "We're proposing these changes now to build in plenty of time for planning and collaboration with all of our school nutrition partners."

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