Some Popular Lunch Products Contain Lead and Other Toxins, New Scientific Test Reveals

Updated: Apr. 09, 2024

These snackable, stackable mini-meal kits might be a hit for kiddos, but a lab test has led a senior chemist to say these "certainly shouldn't be considered" healthy.

Maybe you’re seasoned enough to remember when Lunchables debuted in 1989: That bright yellow box containing a pint-sized kit of meat, cheese, and crackers suddenly made lunchtime more appealing for kids…and less of a fight for the grownup responsible for packing that lunchbox.

Thirty-six years later, it’s often the price that gives some parents pause from purchasing this type of prepackaged meal or snack kit, as well as the ingredients lists: Processed meat, preservatives, and “anti-caking agents” on cheese don’t always read like the most wholesome meal. Now, a new report that investigated Lunchables and competitive products, as well as their packaging, found that a few of these foods may pose some risk to children’s growing brains and bodies.

Led by chemist Eric Boring, PhD, Consumer Reports recently conducted lab tests and a nutritional content analysis to rank Lunchables and several other kid-targeted snack kits that are positioned to retailers and families as whole mid-day meals. From the scientific analysis, Dr. Boring and his team found that some of these foods contained heavy metals, potentially harmful “forever” chemicals, and high sodium levels.

The research team examined the contents of 12 kits from Lunchables, Armour LunchMakers, Target’s Good & Gather, Greenfield Natural Meat Co., and Oscar Mayer, all containing a variety of meats and cheeses, crackers, sauces, and nuts. The scientists tested for heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, and phthalates from plastic packaging, referring to California’s maximum allowable dose level (MADL) for lead or cadmium as a basis for their findings.

The lab team also assessed each product’s sodium content based on the percentage it comprised of the overall daily recommendation.

The good news is that none of the products exceeded legal limits for heavy metal levels. However, since there is no federal limit for heavy metals in most foods, this wasn’t very revealing. Nearly 40% of the products, five out of 12, would expose a person to half of the MADL. “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,” Dr. Boring said.

These kits equate to about 15% of a child’s daily calorie needs, and they could be exposed to other sources of metal from other foods or the environment. Lead accumulates in the body, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that there is no safe level, particularly for children’s growing brains. If a product is found to have excessive levels per government regulations, it will generally be recalled and investigated, as was the case with the apple cinnamon pouches that sickened several children in late 2023.

Another concerning finding in these lunch and snack combos was the presence of phthalates. These plastic-based “forever chemicals,” which can act as hormone disruptors, were found in all but one of the foods tested. Once again, the levels did not exceed legal limits but were troubling given the small serving size, Dr. Boring said: “Many researchers believe those limits are far too permissive, considering the emerging research on the harms of phthalates.”

Lastly, most of the products contained excessive sodium and relied heavily on ultra-processed ingredients and preservatives. While these could be viewed as an occasional snack, they should not be considered a substitute for a balanced lunch for kids. “We don’t believe anyone should regularly consume these products, and they certainly shouldn’t be considered a healthy school lunch,” Dr. Boring said.

The FDA notes that “food manufacturers have a responsibility to significantly minimize or prevent chemical hazards when needed.”

In response to the report, Heinz, the maker of Lunchables, stood by their products: “All our foods meet strict safety standards,” they stated. Armour LunchMakers also noted that they have “strict programs and policies that promote food safety and quality in every step of our value chain.”

Here were the best and worst snack kit combination products ranked by lead levels, based on the findings of Dr. Boring and his team:

3 Worst Products

  • Lunchables Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stackers – Serving size: 3.2 oz.
    • Lead: 74%
    • Sodium: 49%
  • Lunchables Pizza with Pepperoni – Serving size: 4.3 oz.
    • Lead: 73%
    • Sodium: 45%
  • Lunchables Extra Cheesy Pizza – Serving size: 4.2 oz.
    • Lead: 69%
    • Sodium: 34%

3 Healthiest Products

  • P3 Turkey Colby Jack Almonds – Serving size: 2.0 oz.
    • Lead: 7%
    • Sodium: 31%
  • P3 Turkey Ham Cheddar – Serving size: 2.3 oz.
    • Lead: 10%
    • Sodium: 36%
  • Oscar Mayer Natural Hickory Smoked Uncured Ham – Serving size: 3.3 oz.
    • Lead: 21%
    • Sodium: 46% (Note: This product had one of the highest levels of sodium.)

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