Public health experts have called for an urgent cap on ultra-processed food at schools after research found the products made up nearly two-thirds of the average UK school lunch.
Across primary and secondary schools, ultra-processed food accounted for 64% of calories provided by lunchtime meals, the study found, with packed lunches typically containing more of the foods than meals provided by schools themselves.
Ultra-processed products, including fast food and fizzy drinks, are often cheap and marketed as healthy options, but they tend to be higher in salt, fat, sugar and additives that are linked to poor health, such as obesity, diabetes and cancer.
“School meals should be a mechanism for delivering low-cost and healthy meals to all children, which is especially important in the current cost of living crisis,” said Dr Jennie Parnham from the school of public health at Imperial College London. “This is not currently the case. We need urgent policy action to cap the levels of ultra-processed food in school meals.”
The researchers assessed the contents of lunches eaten by more than 3,300 primary and secondary schoolchildren, as recorded in the national diet and nutrition survey between 2007 and 2018. Overall, ultra-processed foods accounted for 82% of calories in packed lunches and 64% in school meals.
According to the analysis in the journal Nutrients, children ate more ultra-processed food when they moved from primary to secondary school, with calories provided by the foods rising from 61% to 77%, partly because more fast food and puddings are served in secondary schools.
Asked whether school meals have improved since 2018, Parnham said the problem had likely become worse. With rising food costs due to Brexit and the war in Ukraine, schools are under increasing pressure, but government support has not increased. Last month, school caterers warned rising costs could force them to drop contracts or serve poorer quality meals next school year.
Current school food standards do not mention ultra-processed foods, but the researchers believe they must be regulated to protect children’s health. That will take extra funding and support from government to help schools buy healthier food at a lower price, they said.
Although packed lunches were found to contain more ultra-processed foods than school meals, the researchers said it was important not to blame parents. “If parents are keen to avoid ultra-processed foods, take a look at the ingredients list. If there are many ingredients you can’t pronounce or don’t recognise then it’s ultra-processed, Parnham said. One tip the researchers suggest is replacing fizzy drinks, fruit juice and yoghurt drinks with water.
Dr Duane Mellor, a nutritionist at Aston Medical School, said despite expectations for school meals, children do not always choose the healthiest options.
“The problem is caterers in schools are on very limited budgets so will tend to cook more of what will be eaten and this can make the situation worse,” he said. “Also children will tend to choose what they like, so this can be a cycle tending for more of the less healthy menu options being offered and eaten in our schools.”
School meals should become a core part of learning, Mellor added, with pupils encouraged to try new, healthier foods and learn food skills, including cooking, with catering funded accordingly so more fresh food is available.