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Consumer Reports asks USDA to remove Lunchables from schools' lunch menus

In this photo illustration, a pack of Lunchables is displayed on Wednesday in San Anselmo, Calif. Consumer Reports is asking for the Department of Agriculture to eliminate Lunchables food kits from the National School Lunch Program after finding high levels of lead, sodium and cadmium in tested kits.
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In this photo illustration, a pack of Lunchables is displayed on Wednesday in San Anselmo, Calif. Consumer Reports is asking for the Department of Agriculture to eliminate Lunchables food kits from the National School Lunch Program after finding high levels of lead, sodium and cadmium in tested kits.

The advocacy group Consumer Reports is urging the federal government to remove Lunchables from the national free and reduced-price school lunch program after an analysis found high amounts of sodium and elevated levels of heavy metals.

Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports, said the meal kits aren't healthy for children and called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to toss the brand from its National School Lunch Program.

"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," Ronholm said in a statement. "The USDA should remove Lunchables from the National School Lunch Program and ensure that kids in schools have healthier options."

Consumer Reports said it found high levels of sodium in Lunchables, detected lead and cadmium in tests and also observed the presence of phthalates, which can impact reproductive health and the human hormonal system.

A USDA spokesperson said the department doesn't allow or disallow individual food items, but rather sets requirements for the overall nutritional content of meals on a daily or weekly basis.

"So, the Lunchables described in the article would need to be paired with fruit, vegetables and milk," the spokesperson said. "In addition, a school who wanted to serve a higher sodium product one day has to balance that with lower sodium items on others."

They added that the USDA "takes very seriously our responsibility to ensure school meals are of the highest nutritional quality" and that it has been helping more schools use local ingredients and cook additional meals from scratch.

Kraft Heinz says it stands by the quality of Lunchables

In a statement, a spokesperson for Kraft Heinz, which makes Lunchables, said all of its products meet strict safety standards and that lead and cadmium occur naturally in the environment and may show up in food at low levels.

"We are proud of Lunchables and stand by the quality and integrity that goes into making them," they said.

Kraft Heinz has also improved the nutritional benefits of Lunchables recently by adding fresh fruit and reducing the sodium found in its crackers, the spokesperson added.

Consumer Reports says two varieties of Lunchables are currently served as part of the school lunch program: Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stackers and Extra Cheesy Pizza.

The group tested store-bought versions of those varieties and found that they had 74% and 69% of the California lead maximum, respectively. Consumer Reports said it used California's threshold for lead as a benchmark for testing rather than the federal limit, because California's standard is "currently the most protective."

The group tested 12 meal kits in total, including Lunchables and other brands, and found at least one type of phthalate in every kit except the Extra Cheesy Pizza variety.

Consumer Reports says Lunchables for schools have higher sodium levels

Consumer Reports also found that Lunchables made to be distributed in schools, which have whole grains in the crackers and additional protein, contain more sodium than those found in stores.

The turkey-and-cheese variety in schools has 930 mg of sodium, compared to the 740 mg found in commercially available kits. For schools, the pizza variety has 700 mg of sodium, while the option sold in stores had 510 mg.

That means the turkey-and-cheese option has nearly half the sodium of the federal daily suggested amount, while the pizza selection has 34% of the recommended daily sodium amount and more than 50% of California's limit for cadmium, the group found.

A petition created by Consumer Reports to push the USDA to remove Lunchables from schools had more than 14,000 signatures Wednesday afternoon.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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