Schools Should Drop Lunchables, Consumer Reports Says

3 min read

April 11, 2024 – Consumer Reports is calling on the U.S. government to remove Lunchables meal kits from school cafeterias that are subsidized by federal funds after testing by the advocacy group found concerning levels of sodium and heavy metals like lead.

The small meal kits can contain as much as 50% of the amount of lead or another metal called cadmium that is considered safe to consume daily, CR warned. All of the kits tested contained between 30% and 50% of recommended daily sodium intake for children ages 4 to 8 years old.

The two Lunchables products available to children as part of the National School Lunch Program are Turkey & Cheddar Cracker Stackers and Extra Cheesy Pizza. They are slightly different from those sold in stores, according to Consumer Reports, because maker Heinz Kraft added more whole grains and proteins to meet program requirements. The School Lunch Program is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and annually provides more than 3 billion free or reduced-price meals to an estimated 30 million children who qualify based on household income. 

But the two School Lunch Program Lunchable kits had higher sodium levels than store-bought counterparts, CR reported.

Consumer Reports scientists also analyzed 12 kits available in supermarkets and found similarly high levels of sodium and metals. The varieties tested included three from Lunchables, as well as lunch and snack kits sold under the brand names Armour LunchMakers, Good & Gather (Target), Greenfield Natural Meat, and Oscar Mayer.

“Lunchables are not a healthy option for kids and shouldn’t be allowed on the menu as part of the National School Lunch Program,” Brian Ronholm, MA, director of food policy at Consumer Reports, said in a statement. “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. The USDA should remove Lunchables from the National School Lunch Program and ensure that kids in schools have healthier options.”

None of the kits exceeded any federal limits, but five of the 12 kits tested would exceed 50% of regulation limits for metals in California. In its report, CR explained that the California limits were used “because there are no federal limits for heavy metals in most foods, and California’s lead and cadmium standards are the most protective available.”

Eric Boring, PhD, a Consumer Reports chemist who led the testing, said in a statement that he doesn’t think anybody should regularly eat the lunch kit products, which typically include crackers, meats, and cheeses. 

“That’s a relatively high dose of heavy metals, given the small serving sizes of the products, which range from just 2 to 4 ounces,” he said, according to a statement in CR’s report. “For example, the kits provide only about 15 percent of the 1,600 daily calories that a typical 8-year-old requires, but that small amount of food puts them fairly close to the daily maximum limit for lead. Even if one meal kit doesn’t push a child over the limit, it puts them in the danger zone because there will likely be exposure from other sources. So if a child gets more than half of the daily limit for lead from so few calories, there’s little room for potential exposure from other foods, drinking water, or the environment."

petition on the Consumer Reports website asking the USDA to remove Lunchables from the School Lunch Program had 16,505 signatures as of Thursday morning.

In a statement provided to Consumer Reports, Kraft Heinz responded: “All our foods meet strict safety standards,” and “lead and cadmium occur naturally in the environment and may be present in low levels in food products.”

A USDA spokesperson told NPR that the department doesn’t make product decisions on an individual basis, but it sets requirements for nutritional content totals from meals eaten in a day or over the course of a week.

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