High amounts of lead and sodium found in Lunchables, new report finds. Here's what you need to know.

Are Lunchables safe to eat?
Are Lunchables safe to eat? Here's what the experts say. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Lunchables may be a nice treat for elementary school kids to find in their lunch box, but according to Consumer Reports, parents should think twice about giving these grab-and-go meals to their children. That’s because the nonprofit organization found that three different types of Lunchables contained high levels of lead and cadmium, another heavy metal, as did similar lunch kits from other brands such as Armour and Target. Five of the 12 lunch kits tested would expose someone to 50% or more of California's maximum allowable amount of lead (there are no federal limits for heavy metals in most foods). It should be noted, however, that the products did not exceed the legal amount of heavy metals allowed in food products.

Yet it’s not just lead that’s the concern here: Consumer Reports also sounded the alarm about the amount of sodium found in these meal kits. Store-bought lunch kits tested by Consumer Reports had sodium levels ranging from 460 mg to 740 mg per serving, which is almost a quarter to half of children’s daily limit. The Lunchables designed for the National School Lunch Program had even higher sodium levels than the store versions.

For these reasons, Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports, stated that the products aren’t healthy for kids to consume, and asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to remove the brand from its National School Lunch Program.

Kraft Heinz says Lunchables ‘adhere to all USDA standards’

Following the report, a spokesperson for Kraft Heinz defended Lunchables in a statement to USA Today, calling the kits a “good source of protein, offering nutrients through meats and cheeses,” as well as citing the steps the company has taken to improve the overall nutrition profile, including adding fresh fruit and “reducing the sodium by 26%.” Kraft Heinz also pushed back against the notion that their food was less healthy due to its processed nature, stating that “many processed foods contain added nutrients, providing even more benefits to the consumer.”

In a statement to Yahoo Life, a spokesperson for Kraft Heinz said the Consumer Reports study caused “undue concern over the safety of our products,” and that “Lunchables products meet strict safety standards set by government agencies.” They said that “Consumer Reports admits that none of the food they tested exceeded any legal or regulatory limits.”

The company also stated that “the results of their study are based on California’s maximum allowable dose for heavy metals. All our products tested well below the acceptable limits. 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.”

Kraft Heinz added that Lunchables "adhere to all USDA standards" and that the company increased the amount of meat in the products to boost protein levels. "With more meat comes naturally elevated levels of sodium to ensure safe preservation of the product."

How harmful is it that Lunchables contain lead?

Dr. Carl Baum, a medical toxicologist for Yale Medicine who is the director of the Lead Poisoning and Regional Treatment Center in Connecticut, tells Yahoo Life that lead levels in food are a legitimate cause for concern. “Children are in a very vulnerable developmental stage, as their brains are still forming,” he explains. “We don’t want anything interfering with that process, and lead and cadmium, as well as other heavy metals, do interfere with that.”

Baum says that children may not show immediate signs of lead poisoning, but that over time, it can cause neurodevelopmental problems. Children exposed to lead may experience behavioral issues, slow growth and problems with learning and development, which can affect school performance.

There are physical issues as well. Baum says that elevated lead levels can lead to issues with “the synthesis of hemoglobin, which is important in preventing anemia.”

Dr. Sara Scherger, a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic Health System in Austin, Minn., says that long-term effects of high levels of lead can include kidney damage and nervous system damage, as well as other issues such as seizures, lethargy, abdominal pain, constipation and vomiting.

Although there are “legal and regulatory reasons” that allow marketing a product that contains lead, Baum says that “when children eat these things regularly, lead can accumulate in the body.” Ultimately, he says, “none of these products should have any lead or cadmium in them.”

Baum says he doesn’t want to single out Lunchables, however, because he says it’s possible “a lot of processed food” contains lead. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says products can be contaminated from lead through packaging, certain spices and improper grinding, storing or drying practices. Since Americans eat a lot of processed foods — including due to social and economic factors — it’s not uncommon for them to be exposed to these kinds of heavy metals.

He says that while lead in food is concerning, most lead exposure doesn’t come from what we consume. Instead, he says, the majority of lead exposure in children comes from living in older homes, where lead paint is present, as it was not banned until 1978.

Why is sodium a problem?

Not all sodium is bad for you. “Sodium is a mineral known as an electrolyte that is needed for many functions in our bodies,” dietitian Tami Best tells Yahoo Life. “We need it for fluid balance, nerve impulses and muscle function.”

However, the amount of sodium in the standard American diet far exceeds the recommendations. That’s a problem because “when we consume high levels of sodium, our body self-protects and works to dilute the high levels of this electrolyte in our bloodstream,” says Best. “The increased fluid in the bloodstream causes an increase in pressure. This increase in pressure can tax our organs, increasing our risk of metabolic disturbances, cardiovascular disease and kidney impairment.”

Lunchables and other lunch kits, in particular, include items like deli meats and pizza, which are two sources the CDC lists as containing high amounts of sodium.

“The daily recommended sodium intake for children is less than 1,500 mg, and for adults, it's less than 2,300 mg, with even lower limits for those at risk of high blood pressure, dietitian Mimi Scheidt, co-founder of JAM Nutrition, tells Yahoo Life. “To put that in perspective, a single teaspoon of salt contains 2,300 mg, which constitutes the recommended daily intake for adults. Considering this, it's essential to note that a teaspoon of salt is not a large quantity, particularly when factoring in restaurant meals and processed foods.”

Scheidt says there are many ways to reduce sodium in your diet, including prioritizing fresh produce, utilizing herbs and spices for flavor instead of salt, limiting processed foods and cooking at home more often. Best says that diets high in sodium can also benefit from potassium, which is “the balancing mineral to sodium,” and adds that “the more potassium-rich foods you eat, the more your body will be capable of removing excess sodium from the body.”

In the meantime, as of April 11, more than 17,000 people have signed a Consumer Reports petition asking the USDA to remove Lunchables from school cafeterias.