'In need of improvement': What's next for flavored milk and yogurt in US schools?

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Milk school meals Dairy

There will be less sugar and salt in US school meals but low-fat and fat-free flavored milks will continue to be offered after the USDA decided to stick with the current requirement.

The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) told us that scrapping flavored milk altogether from school breakfast and lunch menus ‘would have been a mistake for childhood nutrition’ since children tend to drink more milk when there are flavored options on the table.

NMPF’s Miquela Hanselman told us: “One study found a 37.4% overall decrease in milk consumption without flavored milk[1], stemming from both fewer cartons being selected and more milk being wasted. In another study, the average daily participation in school lunch programs fell almost 7% when flavored milk was removed.”

She added that flavored milk ‘offers the same 13 essential nutrients that a glass of unflavored milk’ would provide, and is a source of calcium, potassium and vitamin D in young children. Asked about evidence on the link between flavored milk consumption in schools and improved childhood nutrition, Hanselman said: “Adolescents who drink flavored milk are five times as likely to maintain above-median intakes of dairy foods[3]. Chocolate milk is associated with protection against childhood overweight and obesity, and flavored milk drinkers have higher consumption of calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus and vitamins A, D, B12 and riboflavin, compared to those who do not consume flavored milk.”[4]

The USDA was debating whether to scrap the flavored milk offering from the menus of the youngest children (K-8) but decided to stick with the current requirement that allows schools to serve both flavored and unflavored low-fat and fat-free milk to all grades.

From the 2025/26 school year, there will be new limits on added sugars for yogurts (12g per 6oz) and flavored milk (10g per 8fl.oz or if sold in middle and high schools, 15g per 12fl.oz). Sodium content will be gradually reduced by school year 2027/28 by around 15% for lunch and 10% for breakfast from current sodium limits, giving manufacturers, including cheese producers, three years to reformulate their products.

On sugar reduction, Hanselman told us that flavored milks offered in schools are already lower in added sugars thanks to the industry’s efforts. “Dairy processors have voluntarily worked for more than a decade to reduce added sugars in flavored milk, and the flavored milk currently offered in schools has lower levels of calories and added sugars than ever before,” she explained. “The average amount of added sugars in school flavored milk has been reduced by 50%, to only 8.2 grams, with school flavored milk now having, on average, only 29 calories more than unflavored milk.”

Asked if the new standard presents an opportunity for the industry to innovate towards healthier dairy products, she added: “There are opportunities for lower-sugar yogurt development as well as lower-sodium cheeses.

“However, we also need to remember that sodium serves functional and food-safety purposes in cheese.

“Likewise, modest amounts of sweeteners encourage children to consume yogurt, which is also nutritious but also lower in lactose than milk, so that some lactose-intolerant individuals may be able to consume it without problems.” Hanselman added, however, that while many sweeteners are considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration, ‘there have been controversies about their use and many schools prefer to avoid them’.

Research carried out by the CSPI in 2022 also didn’t find low-calories sweeteners, like aspartame or acesulfame-potassium, in the school milk the organization sampled. In the same research, all 29 flavored milks sampled could meet a Dietary Guidelines for Americans-aligned standard for added sugars for school lunch, but at breakfast, flavored milks became ‘much harder to fit in’ alongside other foods high in added sugars.

Asked if the new limits on sugar and salt are good enough for childhood nutrition, Hanselman told us: “Most, if not all flavored school milk meets the added sugar product maximum of 10 grams per 8 ounces of fluid milk and some of the yogurt served in schools meet the 12 grams of added sugar maximum.

“The balance of continuing to serve foods that children want to eat to ensure they are getting the nutrients milk, cheese and yogurt offer with limited amounts of added sugars and sodium is not always the easiest to achieve, but we are comfortable with where USDA has landed in this rule.”

Mixed reactions

The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) also backed the final rule, with president and CEO Michael Dykes praising the retaining of lactose-free milk as a reimbursable option. “Schools should offer lactose-free milk as a choice to all students, which would mark major progress for child health and nutrition equity in our school meals,” he said. “Providing lactose-free milk, as well as other dairy products with low lactose content, will allow more school children, including those with lactose malabsorption or lactose intolerance, to choose a dairy option that meets their needs and provides all the same essential nutrients as traditional dairy.”

However, the trade body was disappointed with the new sugar limit for yogurt and thought that USDA ‘missed an opportunity’ to bring 2% and whole milk to school breakfast and lunch menus. “A plethora of science demonstrates dairy fat is unique, unlike typical saturated fats, in delivering positive and neutral health outcomes to people across all demographics. IDFA will continue to work with policymakers and lawmakers to enact the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act,” the IDFA said.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), an NGO that represents the interests of school foodservice personnel, also welcomed the final implementation of the standard, stating that the sodium and milk mandates were aligned ‘with the more achievable limits’ and any further sugar and sodium reductions would require federal investment in other aspects of school management.

“SNA appreciates that USDA is moving forward with more attainable, long-term nutrition goals that acknowledge the tremendous challenges schools face when working to adjust menus and gain student acceptance of healthier meals,” said SNA President Chris Derico. “Given research demonstrating that today’s school meals are the most nutritious meals students eat, it is critical that we financially sustain and operationally support school meal programs.

“Further sodium and sugar reductions will require investments in staffing, training and equipment to expand scratch cooking. USDA and Congress must ensure schools, grappling with rising costs, labor shortages and procurement issues, have the support and funding needed to successfully implement these new rules.”

From the 2025/26 school year, there will be new lower limits on added sugars in yogurt. Image: Getty/Antonio D'Albore

But the American Medical Association, which represents more than 190 state societies and medical specialty associations, advocated in favor of a ban of flavored milk, and called for more aggressive limits on sodium.

In comments submitted to US secretary of agriculture Thomas Vilsack last April, the organization shared its concern that ‘increasing the opportunities for students to choose flavored over unflavored milk will only increase the rates of childhood obesity in this country’. “The AMA believes that flavored milk should be completely removed from the school meal program. If that is not an option, the AMA would endorse Alternative A since flavored milk is the top contributor to sugar intake in the school meal program, particularly among younger children,” the body stated.

As for sodium, the AMA proposed the USDA to set ‘more aggressive sodium reduction targets, especially for younger age groups, and to bring the school meal sodium limits in line with the recommended CDRR sodium levels defined by the National Academies’.

Meawhile, the American Public Health Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics called the final rule requirements ‘fair, practical, innovative, and health-based updates’.

CSPI said that the updates mean that school meals will ‘align more closely with the science-based recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans’, but added that there was still room for improvement.

“The USDA's 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that no more than 10 percent of daily calories come from added sugars. However, recent research found that 92 percent of school breakfasts contained 10 percent or more of calories from added sugars.

“In fact, some products formulated for school breakfast contain more added sugar than you’d find in a dessert. School lunches and snacks are similarly in need of improvement,” the organization explained.

What about whole milk?

A bill that has now passed the House could still pave the way for whole milk and 2% milk to be re-introduced in schools for the first time in more than a decade.

Introduced by representative Glenn Thompson, the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act has been placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar under General Orders, meaning that it is eligible for Senate floor consideration.

If it eventually becomes law, the bill would override and in some states, circumvent, USDA’s rules on milk, adding whole and reduced-fat milk to the list of options schools may provide.

The NMPF’s senior director of government relations Claudia Larson argued in an op-ed last year that the law offers ‘a commonsense solution to a national child nutrition problem’, adding that 2% and whole milk are the most popular milk varieties sold in stores. “This legislation would not require schools to serve 2% and whole milk, but it gives them the choice. And many would undoubtedly take it since kids will prefer the same milk they drink at home,” she said.

Larson added that there was scientific evidence suggesting dairy foods at all fat levels have a neutral or positive effect on health outcomes.

But CSPI has called the bill ‘a push to loosen school nutritional standards’. “Recent legislative efforts seek to undermine strong school meal standards… Congress must stay out of the science-based process of determining school meal standards,” the NGO stated.


  1. Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson, Matthew A. Pikosky (2023) Perspective: The Benefits of Including Flavored Milk in Healthy Dietary Patterns, DOI: 10.1016/j.advnut.2023.06.002
  2. Hanks, A., Just, D., & Wansink, B. (2012). A source of contention or nutrition: an assessment of removing flavored milk from school lunchrooms. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 44(4), S21.
  3. Gopinath B, Flood VM, Burlutsky G, Louie JC, Baur LA, Mitchell P. Pattern and predictors of dairy consumption during adolescence. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr 2014;23(4):612-8. Doi: 10.6133/apjcn.2014.23.4.05.
  4. Kanellopoulou, A., Kosti, R. I., Notara, V., Antonogeorgos, G., Rojas-Gil, A. P., Kornilaki, E. N., Lagiou, A., Yannakoulia, M., & Panagiotakos, D. B. (2022). The Role of Milk on Children’s Weight Status: An Epidemiological Study among Preadolescents in Greece. Children, 9(7). https://doi.org/10.3390/CHILDREN9071025

Related topics Markets Dairy drinks

Related news

Follow us


View more