The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its final rule updating the School Nutrition Standards to be consistent with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In the midst of alarming rates of childhood obesity, these guidelines take an unprecedented and welcomed step to limit the amount of added sugar served in schools. Given that children consume up to half of their daily calories at school, reducing the amount of sugar served in federal nutrition programs is critical to their health. So, what does this mean for our kids?

What is Added Sugar and How Does It Impact Kids?

Added sugar is any sugar or sweetener that is added during food processing. This includes typical table sugar as well as sugars added from honey, syrups, or juice concentrates. Added sugar intake is directly linked to Type 2 diabetes, obesity, tooth decay, and early-onset cardiovascular disease, during childhood and later in life. Some foods, like milk and fruit, contain natural sugars, which are only found in unprocessed and whole foods and are not linked with metabolic disease. 

Added sugar in moderation, such as the occasional ice cream sandwich or lollipop, is unlikely to have long-term impacts for most children. Unfortunately, added sugar is ubiquitous in the food supply and it often appears in the least expected places — even savory foods such as bread, peanut butter, condiments, and processed meats often contain added sugar. U.S. food companies add sweeteners to their food to improve texture and taste, but since eating sugar makes you crave more, it also leaves children craving their products. In fact, many packaged foods in the United States have twice as much sugar as their European counterparts.

Excess sugar in children’s bodies triggers biological reactions that can create lifelong complications. Specific microbacteria in the gut feed on sugar, and excess supplies can cause an imbalance in the gut’s microbiome, causing bacteria to eat away at the mucus membrane protecting the intestines and leading to inflammation and digestive upset. Sugar consumption also triggers an insulin response, which will store excess sugar in the bloodstream as fat in organs and around the body, causing obesity and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease — a condition that has skyrocketed among children in recent years. 

Furthermore, excess sugar intake during childhood can shape a child’s preferences for life. Research shows that preferences for fatty and sweet tastes in childhood are directly related to obesity both in childhood and later in life. Children may have a biological reason to prefer sweets, which are naturally associated with energy-dense food. In our modern environment, however, these sweet foods contain far more energy than children need to thrive and overconsumption often has the opposite effect. Consistently eating foods with added sugars causes children to develop lifelong preferences for ultra-sugary meals and snacks. 

What Does the New Guidance Accomplish?

USDA’s new guidance reduces added sugar in school meals and snacks in two phases. First, beginning next school year, flavored milk, yogurt, and breakfast cereals will each have individual limits on their added sugar content. Beginning in the 2027 school year, only 10% of the calories in all school breakfasts and lunches can come from added sugars. 

These new limits represent an important step in prioritizing children’s health and well-being over the food industry’s desire to profit from cheap, processed foods, though more work certainly needs to be done Although the 2027 cap aligns with USDA’s recommended sugar intake guidelines and will help to limit sugar intake, a more aggressive timeline would help curb sugar consumption and its consequences sooner. Overall, the rule offers a strong first step toward reducing sugar intake for our children.