New nutritional guidelines put less sugar and salt on the school meal menu

School meals will soon contain less salt and sugar, but can still include chocolate milk, according to new nutritional guidelines released by the Biden administration.

The Agriculture Department on Wednesday finalized the regulation it first proposed in February 2023, having weakened several provisions after feedback from food companies, school nutrition professionals and more than 136,000 public comments.

“All of this is designed to ensure that students receive quality meals and that we meet parents' expectations that their children receive healthy, nutritious meals at school,” Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, said in a call to reporters Tuesday .

The new guidelines, which seek to better align school meals with federal dietary standards, build on a 2010 law that aimed to make cafeteria breakfasts and lunches healthier. That law, supported by Michelle Obama when she was first lady, was drawn into the political debate almost immediately. The Trump administration has repeatedly attempted to roll back nutrition standards, and the Biden administration has relaxed some provisions to provide more flexibility during the coronavirus pandemic.

When the Department of Agriculture proposed updates to the standards last year, school nutrition professionals called the guidelines unrealistic to enforce, and dairy groups expressed concern about what they called a push to limit milk.

The final rule reflects some of these concerns.

Under the rule, schools will have to limit the amount of added sugars in cereals and yogurts starting in the 2025-26 academic year and gradually increase reductions in other foods.

According to a May 2022 government report, added sugars currently provide on average around 17% of calories in school breakfasts and 11% in school lunches. Federal dietary guidelines recommend that no more than 10 percent of your daily calories come from added sugars.

By the 2027-28 academic year, schools will be required to reduce sodium in lunches by 15% from current levels and in breakfasts by 10%. This was scaled back from the proposed 30% reduction by the 2029-30 school year. Vilsack said the Agriculture Department was unable to cut salt more significantly because it was essentially handcuffed by a policy rider in a spending package passed by Congress in March that limited sodium reduction in school meals .

Current standards limit sodium for students in grades K-5 to 1,650 milligrams for breakfast and lunch combined, and the regulation essentially capped the level at 1,420 milligrams. Federal dietary guidelines recommend no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day for children ages 4 to 8.

Dairy products were also spared from further reductions. Under the final rule, students can still drink chocolate, strawberry and other flavored milks, as long as the drinks meet the added sugar limit.

According to the 2022 government report, flavored milk was the main source of added sugars in school meals. The Department of Agriculture had considered banning the beverages for grades K-5 under the proposed rule. But he decided not to, Vilsack said, because the dairy industry “has risen to the challenge” and is working to produce flavored dairy products with less sugar.

The final rule also maintains the current standard that 80% of grains and legumes offered be whole grains. The department had considered requiring all grains to be whole grains, with one exception per week for refined grain products.

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