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Do Lunchables have lead in them? Consumer Reports finds 'concerning' levels of 'harmful chemicals'

The manufacturer of Lunchables calls the findings of new Consumer Reports testing "misleading."
Lunchables
Lunch kits often contain meat, cheese and crackers.Sarah L. Voisin / The Washington Post via Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Consumer Reports, a nonprofit that conducts independent product testing, has found that three types of Lunchables sold in stores contain lead and other heavy metals. Kraft Heinz, the manufacturer of Lunchables, called the findings "misleading."

Consumer Reports' recent research looked at 12 store-bought versions of Lunchables and similar snacks from other brands. It found lead or cadmium, or both toxic heavy metals, in all of them.

Consumer Reports also flagged all lunch kits for their salt content, which ranged from almost a quarter to half of the daily recommended limit for children.

The snacks are popular and convenient, but “there’s a lot to be concerned about” because they’re highly processed, Amy Keating, a registered dietitian told Consumer Reports.

“They definitely shouldn’t be considered a healthy school lunch,” added Eric Boring, Ph.D., a Consumer Reports chemist who led the testing.

Consumer Reports also filed a petition asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to remove Lunchables from the National School Lunch Program due to their sodium content. The group did not test the Lunchables distributed in schools, which are slightly different from what's available in stores.

Do Lunchables have lead?

Testing from independent nonprofit Consumer Reports found that three different types of Lunchables contained lead — turkey and cheddar with crackers, pepperoni pizza and cheese pizza — as did several other brands' lunch kits.

None of the kits exceeded any legal or regulatory limit, but five of the 12 tested products would expose a person to 50% or more of California’s maximum allowable level for lead or cadmium, currently the strictest standard because there are no federal limits for heavy metals in most foods, Consumer Reports noted.

"Lead and cadmium can cause developmental problems in children over time, even in small amounts," the nonprofit said in a statement. (While experts previously told TODAY.com that a single instance of exposure to lead is unlikely to cause harm and that it’s repeated exposure that’s most concerning, both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization note that there is no amount of lead exposure that is known to be safe.)

In response, a spokesperson for Kraft Heinz, which makes Lunchables, tells TODAY.com in a statement: “(We) believe the results of their study are misleading, causing undue concern over the safety of our products — something we take seriously. The fact is that all Lunchables products meet strict safety standards set by government agencies.”

“The metals they focus on are naturally occurring, and thus low levels may be present in any food product. We do not add these elements to our products.”

Eleven of 12 kits also tested positive for phthalates, chemicals in plastic that have been linked to health problems in humans.

How much lead is in Lunchables?

Consumer Reports tracked the amount of lead in Lunchables by percentage of California’s maximum allowable dose level, which is 0.5 micrograms per day for lead.

It found in the kits tested that the turkey and cheddar Lunchables reached 74% of this daily limit, the pepperoni pizza 73% and the cheese pizza 69%.

“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,” Boring said.

However, none of these amounts exceeded any legal limit for lead in food, which Kraft Heinz emphasizes in its statement to TODAY.com, writing, "All our products tested well below the acceptable limits."

Have Lunchables been recalled?

No, there is not currently any recall on Lunchables. However, there is a petition led by Consumer Reports to remove Lunchables from the nation's school lunch program.

School versions have 'specialized recipe'

Two Lunchables products became available in public schools as part of the National School Lunch Program — which offers low-cost or free lunches to eligible kids — for the 2023-2024 school year: Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stacker, and Extra Cheesy Pizza.

To meet the program guidelines, they have “a specialized recipe that incorporates more protein and whole grains,” “reduced saturated fat and sodium, and an increased serving size,” Jenna Thornton, a spokesperson for Kraft Heinz, told NBC News in 2023.

Consumer Reports didn’t test those two school-approved versions for heavy metals or phthalates, but warned they're even higher in salt than the versions available in stores after reviewing their nutrition information.

“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, director of food policy at Consumer Reports, said in a statement on Tuesday, April 9.

“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.”

Kraft Heinz stresses in its statement to TODAY.com that Lunchables approved in schools adhere to all U.S. Department of Agriculture standards. They contain more meat to increase protein levels, which means “naturally elevated levels of sodium” to ensure safe preservation of the product, Kraft Heinz says.

Consumer Reports has launched a petition urging the USDA to remove Lunchables from the National School Lunch Program and calling for the government to "give our nation’s school children healthier food choices.”

In response, the USDA tells TODAY.com in a statement that it takes very seriously its responsibility to ensure school meals are of the highest nutritional quality. The agency notes it doesn’t allow or disallow individual food items, but focuses on the overall content of meals.

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

Kraft Heinz adds that offering Lunchables in schools helps "meet schools’ needs by giving them affordable, convenient solutions that provide students with quality nutrition at lunchtime.

"We’ve received feedback that products like Lunchables are more trusted by school administrators due to our strict food safety and quality guarantee. We see our work with schools as a solution to valid struggles schools may face."

Lead in food

"Lead may be present in food from the environment where foods are grown, raised, or processed," according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Levels of lead in the environment can vary depending on natural geographical makeup and proximity to current or past use or manufacturing of products made with lead."

The FDA noted that "there is no known safe level of exposure to lead," so the agency monitors and regulates it in food.

"Testing results that detect lead do not necessarily mean the food should be avoided," the FDA clarified.

It added that because many nutritious foods can also contain contaminants, the best way to protect yourself from lead in food is to eat nutrient-dense foods across all the food groups to prevent repeated exposure from a specific food. Eating a balanced diet can also reduce effects of being exposed to contaminants, research shows.