CSPI: More transparency needed on school milk nutrition

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Gettyimages-XiXinXing
Image: Gettyimages-XiXinXing

Related tags school nutrition Milk

An analysis of the nutritional content of milks served in US schools shows many do not adhere to school nutrition standards or the Dietary Guidelines for Americans on added sugar or sodium, says nonprofit the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which is urging manufacturers to review product formulations and calling on the USDA to tighten controls.

The consumer advocacy body also highlighted the lack of publicly available data into the national school milk marketplace, observing that the US dairy industry “closely guards​” its data.

In its report ‘Behind the Carton​,’ the CSPI examined Nutrition Facts and ingredient data for 22 unflavored and 29 flavored single-serve milks (8 fl oz) produced by 11 leading dairy companies to see if they meet school nutrition standards​ which are stricter (see boxes below).

On test were products from Danone North America, Organic Valley, Shamrock Farms, Smith Foods, Inc, Wawa Inc, Borden Dairy Co., and others. The researchers compared the data available from on-pack labels as well as directly from manufacturers if this was unavailable. Only fluid cow’s milk sold to schools in single-serve, half pint or 8 fl oz containers was included in the study.

Sodium 

Milk naturally contains sodium, but of the 29 flavored milk products in the sample, 20 milks had added salt as an ingredient, 16 of which contributed more than half of the sodium intake for the youngest grade group at breakfast under a DGA-aligned target, said the CSPI.

The amount of naturally occurring sodium (which ranged from 95–160 mg per 8lf oz and averaged 117 mg) in the 22 unflavored milk products included in this report does not present a public health concern nor would these levels of naturally occurring sodium make it unfeasible for school food authorities​ (SFAs) to meet a DGA-aligned sodium-reduction target.

“In contrast, the 29 flavored milk products included in this report had between 95–250 mg of sodium (with an average of 164 mg), and 20 of them (69%) had salt as an added ingredient. While all 29 flavored milk products would contribute less than half of the sodium at K–5 breakfast under Target 1 (< 540 mg), 16 of them would contribute more than half of the sodium under a DGA-aligned target at K–5 breakfast (≤ 340 mg).

“This means that if SFAs were to offer any of these 16 flavored milk products, it would be difficult for them to meet the most protective sodium standard for the youngest grade group.”

The CSPI noted that one chocolate milk had “only 20 mg of additional sodium from salt, which confirms that reducing sodium in flavored milk is indeed possible for the dairy industry.”

Organic Valley’s flavored offering was found to have the highest median sodium content at 200mg, followed by Borden Dairy Co. and Wawa Inc. (190mg) and Crystal Creamery (185mg). For unflavored milk, Producers Dairy Foods Inc. had the highest mean value at 145mg, followed by Danone North America (130mg) and Borden Dairy Co. (120mg).

“We assessed each unflavored milk product’s percent contribution to Target 1 and a DGA-aligned sodium reduction target at both breakfast and lunch for grade group K–5 (the grade group with the lowest sodium allowances) and grade group 9–12 (the grade group with the highest sodium allowances),”​ the CSPI wrote.

Added sugar 

The average added sugars content was found to be 10g – close to the lowest DGA-aligned standard, for K-5 sugar intake at breakfast (12.5g or lower). Shamrock Farms was found to have the highest median added sugars value at 14g while Borden Dairy Co. had the lowest result, its low-fat and fat-free milks containing 6g of added sugars. Danone North America’s three products averaged 10g, and Producers Dairy Foods’ two had 7g on average.

Flavored milks were found to have a significant impact on sugar intake in the lowest grade group, with seven products accounting for over 100% of the DGA-aligned sugar allowance, and 13 others contributing 80% or more. For grades 9-12, six products contained 80% or more of the DGA-aligned sugar allowance.

Synthetic dyes: ‘We want to see dairy companies across the country offer school milk products that are low in sodium and added sugars and free from synthetic dyes’

Synthetic dyes – which can impact neurobehavior in some children – were found in five of the flavored milk products, all of which were strawberry-flavored. These were from Wawa Inc., Upstate Niagara Cooperative Inc., Gossner Foods Inc., and Shamrock Farms, and are offered across all school grades.

Samuel Hahn, policy coordinator at CSPI and one of the authors of the report, commented: “There are companies - Producers Dairy Foods Inc., for example - whose flavored milk is already in a good place in terms of sodium and added sugars. We want to see the rest of the dairy industry follow these companies’ lead and make their school milk products healthier for the children who drink them every day. We also know that the fresh milk market is highly regional, and so most schools have very few options when it comes to selecting a milk supplier.

“So, we want to see dairy companies across the country offer school milk products that are low in sodium and added sugars and free from synthetic dyes as well.”

CSPI: Nutritional data should be public

As part of its recommendations, CSPI has urged the USDA to conduct its own study into the national school milk market, claiming that the dairy industry ‘controls the narrative’ yet its data is not easy to obtain.

The body offers an example of a dataset promoted by the IDFA and NMPF that states that average added sugar levels had declined by 57%, going from 16.7g to 7.1g – contrary to the study’s findings of 10g on average across the 29 sample milks.

“Since only members of the dairy industry can view the report cited in IDFA and NMPF’s comment to the USDA, there is no way for the public to assess their strategic claims about added sugars in flavored school milk​,” the report reads.

“Publicly available, peer-reviewed data should be the standard for evaluating the national school milk marketplace, and the USDA should not rely on proprietary industry data to evaluate compliance with nutrition standards.”

Asked if the body is aware of such research having been conducted by the USDA before, Hahn said: “We are not sure to what extent the USDA is collecting product-specific data for other school meal components - outside of the items available through the USDA Foods in Schools program - butnutrition information for school milk is certainly more difficult to obtain than for other school food products.”

Some dairy companies were willing to share that data with us, but many others were not. The nutrition information for the milk products served in schools should be publicly available, and if the dairy industry is unwilling to be transparent, then the USDA should step in and inform the public.”​ CSPI

‘Severely flawed’

CSPI also highlighted that school food authorities (SFAs) are not collecting nutrition information during their administrative reviews, instead providing standard nutrient values to calculate overall menu compliance. This process is ‘severely flawed’, according to Hahn.

He explained: “SFAs do have the nutrition information for the milk products that they serve at breakfast and lunch, since the containers themselves have the Nutrition Facts labels and ingredient lists printed on them. The dairy companies also have spec sheets that they provide to the meal program operators in those local school districts. That nutrition information, however, is not being collected and stored at the state level by the agencies who oversee these meal programs, and as a result the data is not being passed along to the USDA at the federal level.

“We will not venture a guess as to why state agencies are not collecting this product-specific data for school milk products, but we can say that the practice of using standard nutrient values for flavored milk during SFAs’ administrative reviews is severely flawed because our report shows how much the sodium and added sugars contents vary even between products sold by the same company.”

The bottom line is that companies need to aim at improving their formulations, lowering sugar and salt and replacing synthetic dyes with natural coloring. “As we note in the report, there are companies whose flavored milk is already in a good place in terms of sodium and added sugars,”​ Hahn concluded.

We want to see the rest of the dairy industry follow these companies’ lead and make their school milk products healthier for the children who drink them every day. We also know that the fresh milk market is highly regional, and so most schools have very few options when it comes to selecting a milk supplier. So, we want to see dairy companies across the country offer school milk products that are low in sodium and added sugars and free from synthetic dyes as well.”

Under its 2022 transitional rule on school nutrition standards​, the USDA set short-term sodium reduction targets for the three grade groups (K–5, 6–18, and 9–12) through SY 2023–24. Target 1 went into effect on July 1, 2022 for all grade groups at both breakfast and lunch; Interim Target 1A, which represents a 10% sodium reduction, will go into effect on July 1, 2023 for all grade groups but will only apply to lunch.

While the USDA says future rulemaking—expected in early 2023—will align school nutrition standards with the 2020 Dietary Guidelines, neither Target 1 nor Interim Target 1A meet the 2020 DGA recommendations for any age group.

 Following the same methodology as the USDA used when setting the 2012 sodium-reduction targets, the CSPI calculated a ‘DGA-aligned target’ by multiplying the sodium Chronic Disease Risk Reduction Intake (CDRR) for each grade group (1,500 milligrams [mg] per day for K–5; 1,800 mg for 6–8; 2,300 mg for 9–12) by the mean daily calorie targets for breakfast (21.5%) and lunch (32%) as set by the National Academy of Medicine in its 2010 report School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children. All values were then rounded up to the nearest 10 mg.

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans​ ​ recommend maximum levels for sodium at 1,200 mg/day for ages 1 through 3; 1,500 mg/day for ages 4 through 8; 1,800 mg/day for ages 9 through 13; and 2,300 mg/day for all other age groups.  

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