United Kingdom: Nearly Two-Thirds Of School Lunches Contain Ultra-Processed Foods

School lunches in the United Kingdom are loaded with highly processed foods that contribute to children’s bad health.

According to a study headed by Imperial College London researchers and published today in the journal Nutrients, “ultra-processed” foods are the leading source of calories for British primary and secondary school students.

Analysis of more than 3,000 children’s lunches between 2008 and 2017 found that 64 percent of the calories in school lunches originate from ultra-processed foods, which contributes to the ingestion of high amounts of processed foods and raises the risk of childhood obesity. As compared to school lunches, packed lunches comprised higher calories from highly processed items including bread, snacks, pudding and soda.

According to the researchers, public school meals (i.e. free school meals and those that children may purchase at school) are an essential mechanism for delivering nutritious food to children, particularly those from low-income homes. Policymakers and educators have an important chance to ‘level the playing field’ by enhancing the nutritional quality of school meals, according to the researchers. They say that immediate legislative reforms are required to limit the quantity of processed foods in school lunches and to enhance the availability of free school meals, which might assist to improve the diets and health of Britain’s youngsters.

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.”  She continued: “Ultra-processed foods are often cheap, readily available, and heavily marketed – often as healthy options. 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.  “As food prices continue to rise in the UK and globally, accessing affordable, healthy food will become more challenging for many more people. School meals should offer children from all backgrounds access to a healthy and minimally processed meal, yet they are currently failing to meet their potential.” 

Frozen pizzas, milk-based beverages, mass-produced packaged bread, and many ready meals fall under the category of ultra-processed foods (UPFs).

Consumption of these foods has been related to obesity and an increased risk of chronic diseases including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, or even cancer in the past, according to study.

The UK has the greatest consumption of UPFs in Europe, according to previous study by the researchers. Research has shown that eating habits learned in infancy may persist into adulthood, putting children at risk for obesity and a variety of health problems.

They analyzed the diets of more than 3,300 elementary and secondary school students, acquired via the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, in their current research. The study’s goal was to determine the percentage of UPFs in kids’ packed lunches (food taken from home) and school meals (including lunches supplied by the school (free school meals) or purchased by students from the school cafeteria).

Researchers examined the calorie intake and the quantity of each food category in the diets of 1,895 elementary school students (ages 4-11) and 1,408 high school students (ages 11-18) as part of the study (in grams).

Across all age groups, UPFs accounted for around 75% of the calories in school lunches, with packed lunches accounting for 82% of the calories, while school meals accounted for 64% of the calories.

Nevertheless, the research indicated that secondary school students had greater amounts of UPFs (70 percent of calories) than elementary school students in school meals (61 percent of calories). There was a greater percentage of calories from fast food items, puddings, and sweets served in secondary school lunches.

Overall, children from lower-income families had 77% of their daily calories from UPF, compared to 69% of all other kids in the study (71 percent of calories).

Nearly half of the calories in packed lunches came from ultra-processed bread and snacks in elementary school, whereas just 13% of the calories in school meals came from these sources. Packed lunches included less calories from minimally processed fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products and starches (such as pasta or potatoes) than school meals.

Fizzy drinks, fruit juice and yogurt drinks are among the most common ultra-processed foods that contribute to a person’s overall UPF consumption. They believe that one of the simplest and most cost-effective ways to increase the nutritional content of school meals is to replace these high-calorie, ultra-processed beverages with water.

Although this is the first study to include data from primary and secondary school settings, the researchers point out the restriction that secondary kids self-reported their dietary data whereas primary schoolchildren did not, however this most likely indicates that the magnitude of UPFs ingested by secondary schoolchildren is under-estimated..

Dr Eszter Vamos, from Imperial’s School of Public Health, added: “With the rising cost of living, many families are struggling to access healthy foods, and school meals might be the only opportunity for many children to have a healthy regular main meal. School meals are critically important in making sure that every child has access to an affordable nutritious meal.  “Children in England consume very high levels of ultra-processed foods, and it is worrying that meals consumed at school contribute to this. Our findings call for urgent policy changes to improve the accessibility and quality of school meals as this could shape children’s overall diets considerably with important consequences for their current and future health.”  The National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), acting via its School for Public Health Research, is the organization that is providing funding for this research.

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