Picture of ultra-processed food served at lunch in a cafeteria

Worrying Levels of Ultra-Processed Foods in School Lunches

According to a recent study lead by Dr. Jennie C. Parnham of Imperial College London, school children in the United Kingdom consume the highest levels of ultra-processed foods in the whole of Europe. Public health experts have expressed the need for urgent action to improve the nutritional value of school lunches for Britain’s children.

What are Ultra-Processed Foods?

What sets ultra-processed foods apart from unprocessed foods? The addition of ingredients like sweeteners, colourings, preservatives, and other additives. Most often, they are higher in fat, sugar, and salt than other foods. Surprisingly, the highest proportion of ultra-processed food in the UK is made up of industrialized bread, i.e., mass-produced, packaged bread that has had preservatives added to prolong its sell-by date. This is followed by ready meals; breakfast cereals; and reconstituted meat products, such as chicken nuggets and ham. In children, higher UPF consumption is linked to a higher likelihood of becoming overweight or obese. If continued into adulthood, these risks extend to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, among others.

The Study

The study, The Ultra-Processed Food Content of School Meals and Packed Lunches in the United Kingdom, published in MDPI journal Nutrients, set out to determine the levels of ultra-processed food in both school meals (i.e., free school meals as well as food sold in school canteens) and packed lunches in both primary and high schools in the UK between 2008 and 2017 across different socioeconomic groups. To this aim, the authors conducted a cross-sectional analysis of 3,303 school children aged 4 to 11 (1895) and 11 to 18 (1408) using the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS).

Of the total number of children included in the analysis, 47% ate school meals and 53% ate packed lunches. Both the mean and median UPF consumption levels were higher in secondary than in primary school children, and this level was higher in packed lunches than in school meals across both age groups. When the data were stratified for income and meal type, children from lower-income backgrounds were found to consume more UPFs in their lunches, regardless of whether they had a school meal or packed lunch. This correlation was found to be more dramatic in secondary than primary school students.

Overall, the UPF content was found to be high in school lunches across both primary (72.6% of calories) and secondary schools (77.8% of calories). As such, UPFs constitute nearly two-thirds of school lunches on average. In addition, this content was lower in school meals than packed lunches and increased as children got older. This represents the need for school meals to be improved in terms of nutritional quality. They should also be more readily accessible for all children aged 4 to 18.

Who is Most Affected by Ultra-Processed Foods?

The study observed the highest UPF consumption among packed lunch consumers, secondary schoolchildren, and those in lower income households.

The current national cost of living crisis in the UK means that access to affordable, yet nutritious food will become increasingly difficult for a growing proportion of the population. This puts those of lower socioeconomic status at an even greater risk by further limiting their available options.

What Can be Done?

The study highlights that the World Health Organization has stated that food public procurement by the Government could be used to improve the diets of school children whilst at school by regulating the amount of industrial processing involved in producing school meals.

The study uses Brazil as an example of a country that has implemented a strict framework for school meals in public schools, in which 75% of purchased food must be classed as minimally processed, and 30% must come from local sources.

Although in the UK, all food procurement in schools must adhere to mandatory requirements, these standards do not consider UPFs. Currently, there is no maximum level of ultra-processed foods allowed in school food in the UK.

The article calls for a restructuring of policies to include levels of industrial processing in food in schools. This could increase the accessibility to free and low-cost school meals, thus improving the diets of children from all backgrounds in the United Kingdom.

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