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June 10, 2024
Lunchables have high levels of lead and sodium, Consumer Reports finds
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Lunchables have high levels of lead and sodium, Consumer Reports finds

Jun 10, 2024

Consumer Reports is calling for the removal of Lunchables from school trays across the country after discovering concerning levels of lead and sodium and a potentially harmful chemical in their packaging in products sold in stores.

A petition lobbying the U.S. Department of Agriculture to get rid of the Kraft Heinz products from the National School Lunch Program has more than 14,000 signatures.

Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports, said the nonprofit watchdog found concerning levels of lead when it tested store-bought Lunchables. Elevated lead levels have been linked for decades to developmental problems in children.

Concerns about weak government oversight ofheavy metals in children’s food are growing after more than 500 cases of lead poisoning were linked to applesauce pouch products. Ronholm also noted that high sodium levels such as those found in Lunchables have the potential to increase children’s risk of developing high blood pressure. Consumer Reports found phthalates — chemicals used in plastics — in the packaging of some of the Kraft Heinz store-bought items they tested. Phthalates are linked to health concerns involving hormone disruption.

“It’s disconcerting to have something that’s unhealthy be included as part of the lunch program,” Ronholm said. “You’re really putting kids at risk and putting them at a disadvantage.”

Kraft Heinz spokeswoman Lynsey Elve said Lunchables have been “parent-approved” for 35 years, with more than half of U.S. parents “proudly buying the brand.”

“All our foods meet strict safety standards that we happily feed to our own families,” Elve said. “Lead and cadmium occur naturally in the environment and may be present in low levels in food products. We are proud of Lunchables and stand by the quality and integrity that goes into making them.”

Consumer Reports’ findings follow a Washington Post investigation last year that showed how powerful food companies get ultra-processed foods such as Lunchables to qualify for the National School Lunch Program through years of extensive lobbying to lower government nutrition standards.

Big food companies argued that pizza sauce and french fries should count as vegetables — which is now the case — and beat back almost all regulation of children’s food advertising.

“Lunchables is an example of ‘big’ business looking to capitalize on the 30 million school lunches served every day, by marketing their unhealthy products to our nation’s children who deserve healthy nutritious food in schools,” said Ann Cooper, a chef who is a renowned evangelist for cooking whole foods for children at school.

“It’s a travesty that what we feed our children isn’t held up to a higher standard. They are our future and deserve better,” Cooper said.

Two versions of Lunchables custom-made for schools were added to the National School Lunch Program last year, despite outcry from many nutrition experts. As The Post found, Kraft Heinz added more protein and whole grain to the reformulated Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stacker Lunchables — but also increased sodium. Kraft Heinz previously declined to disclose how many school systems are serving its products.

The Post found that in Chile, the school version of the turkey-and-cheddar Lunchable would qualify for labels warning about high sodium, calorie and saturated fat levels, reflecting how other nations have adopted stricter labeling, advertising and nutrition standards in reaction to the world’s obesity crisis. Elve had previously characterized applying Chilean labeling standards to Lunchables as “reaching.”

“Lunchables are ultra-processed junk foods for kids,” said Marion Nestle, a retired professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “Why anyone would think these are appropriate for school lunches is beyond me. Yes, they are cheap, and yes, kids like them. But schools need to do better than that.”

Elve said that “processed foods arbitrarily classified as ‘ultra-processed’ are not necessarily less nutritious.”

Ronholm said Consumer Reports’ findings reinforced the necessity of strong school lunch standards making sure children have access to healthy foods while their brains are developing.

“We really need to reexamine and reevaluate the types of policies that are in place now and how they can be modified to give our kids a chance,” he said.

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