Could USDA limit the provision of flavored milk in US schools?

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags flavored milk Milk Dairy school meals Nutrition Children

In a bid to provide healthier meals and reduce the amount of sugar and salt consumed by school kids, the USDA has proposed several updates to the school nutrition standards, with flavored milk potentially excluded from some kids' menus.

The proposals, which are open for public consultation until April 10, 2023, reflect the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Targeted are some of the most common sources of added sugar and sodium, such as flavored milk, which the USDA says is the leading source of added sugars in both lunch and breakfast programs, contributing almost half of the added sugars in lunches and about 30% of the added sugars in breakfasts*.

Schools are currently required to offer fat-free and/or low-fat (1%) unflavored milk at breakfast and lunches – but there may also be a fat-free and/or low-fat flavored milk beverage on offer.

Now, the USDA is proposing two options. One is to limit the provision of flavored milk to higher grades, i.e. high school children, and offer elementary and middle school kids fat-free and/or low-fat unflavored milk only.

The other option – flavored milk for all - would be to keep the current standard, but limit the amount of added sugar in flavored milk.

How flavored milk contributes to sugar and sodium intake during school meals?

According to a study​ carried out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which analyzed the nutritional content of milks served in US schools, all 29 flavored milk samples contained between 95-250mg of sodium, or 164mg on average, which is 48% of the DGA-aligned standard for K-5 breakfast. Of the samples analyzed, the highest levels of sodium found in a flavored milk product amounted to 250mg.

The USDA says it wants to lower the targets across all school grades gradually from 2025 to 2029 for lunch programs, and from 2025 to 2027 for breakfast. For example, a new sodium limit for K-5 children from July 1, 2025 will be 1,000mg for lunch, going down to 810mg on July 1, 2029.

While there is no limit on added sugars in school meals, the CSPI study compared how flavored milks fared against DGA-aligned targets. Seven flavored milk products were found to account for more than 100% of the DGA-aligned sugar allowance, while 13 other products contributed 80% or more. For higher grades, six products contained 8-% or more of the DGA-aligned sugar allowance.

Now, the USDA is proposing to limit the amount of added sugars in flavored milks to 10g per 8oz of milk for products served at breakfast and lunch; there is a higher proposed limit for products sold outside the meal for middle and high school students, which is 15g of added sugars per 12oz of milk.

Overall, the USDA wants to limit added sugar to account for less than 10% of calories per meal, on top of any product-based limits. The new rule could come into force from school year 2027/28.

Snap verdict

Neither of the two USDA proposals for milk are set to thrill manufacturers of flavored dairy beverages. Limiting flavored milk provision to higher grades may be seen as an attempt to shrink the market by not offering a flavored option to younger students. And introducing restrictions for added sugar along with lower recommended levels for sodium would likely require reformulations for some products. The key positive, however, is that milk remains central to the USDA’s efforts to improve nutrition in schools, the department stating that milk – fat-free and low-fat in particular – ‘contains essential nutrients that kids need to grow and thrive’.

The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and the International Dairy Foods Association have said they are ‘carefully reviewing’ other provisions set forth in the proposals, such as the weekly added sugars and sodium limits, and will submit formal comments.

Jim Mulhern, NMPF president and CEO, said: “Children having access to the healthful foods they need to grow and focus in school is a key priority for dairy farmers. Milk is the top source of calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamin D in kids ages 2-18, and 1% flavored milk is a nutrient-dense, low-fat option students will actually choose to drink. We are pleased USDA is maintaining low-fat flavored milk in schools, providing children with an additional, and favored, choice to access the 13 essential nutrients milk provides, including three of the four nutrients of public health concern. But we question why USDA would propose school meal options that could limit a child’s access to these nutrients and we urge instead that they expand access to dairy options. Providing low-fat flavored milk will increase students’ intake of nutrients vital for their growth and development.”

“The most recent Dietary Guidelines report is clear: children are not receiving enough essential nutrients for growth, development, healthy immune function, and overall wellness,” added Michael Dykes, D.V.M., IDFA president and CEO. “Healthy milk and dairy options in school meals offer the most important opportunity of the day for children to get the critical nutrients they need.

“For years, parents and nutrition professionals have agreed that milk and dairy products must remain key building blocks in school meals. While we are pleased that this proposed rule continues to make dairy central to child nutrition, we are concerned with USDA’s ongoing efforts to propose limitations to milk and dairy in school meals, which run counter to the Dietary Guidelines and the mandate of America’s parents.”

Comments can be submitted from February 7, 2023 through April 10, 2023, via the USDA Food and Nutrition Service website​. 

Source: Added Sugars in School Meals and the Diets of School-Age Children
Mary Kay Fox,1, Elizabeth C. Gearan, and Colin Schwartz
Published: 30 January 2021
DOI: 10.3390/nu13020471

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