Published: 20 July 2022
A study funded by NIHR has found that school meals in the UK are packed with highly processed foods, promoting poor health among children and increasing their risk of obesity.
Researchers at the NIHR School for Public Health Research (SPHR) found that British primary and secondary school children are getting the majority of their lunchtime calories from ‘ultra-processed’ foods.
Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are items that are heavily processed during their making, such as frozen pizzas, fizzy or milk-based drinks, mass-produced packaged bread and many ready meals.
The analysis looked at the content of school lunches of more than 3,000 children, using data collected through the National Diet and Nutrition survey between 2008-2017. The analysis included data from 1,895 primary school children (aged 4-11) and 1,408 secondary school children (aged 11-18), looking at food groups making up the total calorie count, as well as the proportion of total food intake of the meal.
The researchers found that on average, more than 75% of calories across all school lunches came from UPFs. Ultra-processed bread, snacks, puddings and sugary drinks were among the biggest contributors.
Dr Jennie Parnham, from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London and first author on the paper, said: “This is the first study to look at the extent of ultra-processed food content in school lunches for children of all ages. We need to view these findings as a call to action to invest in policies that can promote healthy eating. Owing to the current cost of living crisis, school meals should be a way for all children to access a low-cost nutritious meal. Yet, our research suggests this is not currently the case.
“Ultra-processed foods are often cheap, readily available, and heavily marketed. But these foods are also generally higher in salt, fat, sugar, and other additives, and linked with a range of poor health outcomes, so it’s important that people are aware of the health risks of children consuming them in high levels at school.”
The researchers say the findings highlight a key opportunity for policy makers and educators to ‘level the playing field’ by improving the nutritional quality of school lunches, especially for children from families with low incomes. They argue that urgent policy changes are needed to increase access to free school meals and cap the amount of processed foods they contain, which could help to boost the diets and health of Britain’s children.