UK school meals contain too much ultra-processed food

The analysis, which looked at the contents of school lunches of more than 3,000 children between 2008 and 2017, found that 64% of the calories in school-provided meals came from microprocessed foods, contribute to the consumption of more processed foods. food and

. Breads, snacks, puddings, and sugary drinks are the biggest contributors, and in general, packed lunches contain more calories from highly processed foods than school meals.

According to the researchers, publicly funded school meals (i.e. free school meals and school-purchased school meals) are an important mechanism for providing healthy food to children, especially children from low-income families. They explain the findings highlighting important opportunities for policymakers and educators to ‘level the playing field’ by improve the nutritional quality of school lunches. They argue that urgent policy changes are needed to limit the amount of processed foods in school lunches and increase access to free school meals, which could help strengthen the diet. Food and health of British children.

Dr Jennie Parnham, from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London and first author of the paper, said: “This is the first study to look at the levels of ultra-processed food content. during school lunches for children of all ages. We need to see these findings as a call to action to invest in policies that can promote healthy eating. Due to the current cost of living crisis, School meals should be a way for all children to have access to nutritious meals at a low cost


. However, our research shows that this is not currently the case. ”

She continues: “Ultra-processed foods are often cheap, readily available and commercially available – often healthy options. But these foods are generally also high in salt, fat, sugar and nutrients. Other additives are higher and are associated with many types of poor health outcomes, so it is important that people are aware of the health risks of children eating them at the high school level in school.

“As food prices continue to rise in the UK and globally, access to healthy, affordable food will become harder for many people to meet their potential.”

What are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are items that are heavily processed in the manufacturing process: such as frozen pizzas, carbonated drinks or milk, mass-produced packaged breads, and many ready-to-eat meals. Previous research has shown a link between regular consumption of them with obesity and an increased long-term risk of health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The team’s previous study reported the highest proportion of children consuming UPF in the UK, the highest in Europe. The work also highlights that eating patterns established from childhood extend into adulthood, potentially putting children on a lifelong trajectory towards obesity and a range of negative outcomes. on physical and mental health.

For the latest study, the team looked at the diets of more than 3,300 primary and secondary school-aged children, collected through the National Diet and Nutrition survey. The purpose is to check UPF rates in packed lunches (home-cooked meals) and school meals (including school-provided lunches (free school meals) or students purchased at the school canteen).

The analysis included data from 1,895 elementary school children (4-11 years old) and 1,408 secondary school children (11-18 years old), looking at the food groups that make up total calories, as well as the proportion of total food intake. eat of the meal. (in grams).

Overall, about 75% of calories in all types of school lunches come from UPF – with 82% of calories from UPF in packed lunches, compared with 64% in school meals – across all ages.

However, in school meals, research shows that high school students have higher UPF levels (70% calories) than elementary school students (61% calories). High school students’ meals have a higher percentage of calories from snacks, puddings, and desserts.

Overall, children with lower incomes were more likely to have UPF levels on their plates (77% of calories) than children with higher incomes (71% of calories).

In elementary school, nearly half of the calories in packed lunches come from highly processed breads and snacks, compared with just 13% of the calories in school meals. Packaged lunches also tend to have fewer calories from minimally processed fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy, and starches (such as pasta or potatoes), than school meals.

One of the biggest UPF contributors, as a percentage of grams of food, comes from processed beverages – such as carbonated drinks, juices or yogurt drinks. According to the team, one of the easiest and most cost-effective opportunities to improve the nutritional value of school lunches is to trade this ultra-processed beverage for water.

While this work is the first to combine both primary and secondary settings, the researchers highlight the limitation that high school students self-report their dietary data while students primary school does not, but this primarily means that the proportion of UPF consumed by secondary school students is lower than estimated.

Dr Eszter Vamos, from the Imperial School of Public Health, added: “With the rising cost of living, many families are finding it difficult to access healthy foods and school meals that are not possible. is a unique opportunity for many children to have a healthy regular meal. School meals are important in ensuring that every child has access to an affordable, nutritious meal.

“Children in the UK consume very high amounts of ultra-processed foods and it is worrying that school meals are contributing to this. Our findings call for urgent policy changes. for improve access and quality of school meals as this can significantly shape children’s overall diets with important consequences for their current and future health. “

Source: Eurekalert

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