School meals are a major source of dietary intake for low-income children at high obesity risk. Associations between added sugar and obesity are well known, and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) prohibits added sugar in fruit or juice; yet, no added sugar limits exist for other meal components. We quantified added sugar intake in school lunches and compared these data to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommendations.


Six Title I elementary schools in Virginia were randomly selected. Digital imagery plate waste methods assessed lunch consumption (N=1128; 1st-5th grade; 98.6% racial/ethnic minorities; 92.5% NSLP participation; 100% free meals). Nutritional information for reference portions was analyzed using Nutrition Data Systems for Research. Added sugar (g, kcal, %kcal) selected and consumed was examined and compared to the DGA (<10% of daily calories from added sugar).


Children consumed 5.7-8.7g of added sugar from foods (grade differences observed; p<.05) and 6.2-10.9g of added sugar from drinks (sex and grade differences observed; p<.05). Added sugar comprised ~9-11% of total lunch calories consumed from foods and ~37-45% of total lunch calories consumed from drinks. Students selected sugar-sweetened milk (59.3%), 100% fruit juice (25.6%), and white milk (11.5%). When compared to DGA, ~3-4% of recommended daily calorie needs were from added sugar in the full lunch meal; thus, ~6-7% of daily calories from added sugar remained before children would have exceeded the DGA.


Added sugar consumption from drinks was greater than from foods, yet overall sugar consumption was acceptable. Findings support previous reports that school meals have less added sugar than lunches from other sources for low-income children. Future research should examine added sugar in school breakfast and lunch. If daily intake exceeds DGA, limiting sweetened milk might be a feasible target to reduce added sugar from school meals.