Limiting Added Sugars in School Meals—Confusion Abounds

Originally Published: March 6, 2023
Last Updated: March 6, 2023
Sugar Reduction and School Meals-Confusion Abounds 2023CLC Feature image

A two-phased approach for limiting sugars in school lunches and breakfasts has been proposed by the USDA that is set to begin in 2025. According to the USDA, the following general criteria regarding sugar reduction were given (

  • Limiting added sugars in certain high-sugar products (i.e., grain-based desserts, breakfast cereals, yogurts and flavored milks) and, later, across the weekly menu.
  • Allowing flavored milk in certain circumstances and with reasonable limits on added sugars.

According to USDA Secretary Vilsack, one major impetus behind sugar reduction in school meals is to gradually update these meals “to science-based nutrition standards in school meals.”

So, where is the confusion? School nutritional guidelines have seemingly been politicized in the past several years. The nutritional guidelines for school lunches remained the same for 30 years until First Lady Michelle Obama took on combatting childhood obesity by making meals more healthful and nutritious. As a result, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was launched in 2010. In 2017, President Trump attempted to remove many of the rules established by Michelle Obama’s initiative to reduce waste and increase meal pattern flexibility, but failed. The Biden administration is proposing other changes to the school meal program.

In addition, the FDA’s updated definition of “healthy” will likely add to the confusion. Foods and beverages with reduced sugar may imply that they’re healthy, even though they’re likely to fail the new “healthy” guidelines. In fact,” less than 5% of packaged foods will qualify…(for) the healthy icon,” said Beth Johnson, RD, founder and principal, Food Directions LLC, according to Government Efforts to Limit Sugar are Intensifying by Ron Sterk in Food Business News (

The School Nutrition Association per the “USDA Wants to Limit Added Sugars and Sodium in School Meals,” (NPR, Feb 3, 2023) (, advocates “enforcing the current standards instead of implementing new rules…Many of the current school standards implemented during the Obama administration were waived during the pandemic …to give schools flexibility with what they could serve as they faced supply-chain crunches.”

Many factors impact school meal guidelines. Food product developers formulating school meals need a firm direction to meet the proper nutritional standards, not to mention the fact that sugar reduction impacts product functionality and cost.

Given all of the focus on the sugar content in foods, Global Food Forums’ 2023 Clean label Conference, in affiliation with GFF’s Sweetener Systems website, will address the topic of sweeteners with a series of speakers.

By Paula Frank for Global Food Forums