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Study suggests ultra-processed foods make up majority of calories in school meals

21 Jul 2022
British primary and secondary school children are getting nearly two-thirds of their lunchtime calories from ‘ultra-processed’ foods, according to a study led by researchers at Imperial College London and published in the journal Nutrients.

The analysis, which looked at the content of school lunches of more than 3,000 children between 2008-2017, found that 64% of the calories in meals provided by the school came from ultra-processed foods, contributing to the consumption of high levels of processed foods and increasing the risk of childhood obesity.

The study, which identified ultra-processed bread, snacks, puddings and sugary drinks as among the biggest contributors, also found that packed lunches contained more calories from such foods than school meals.

Dr Jennie Parnham, from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London and lead 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 – 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.”

According to the researchers, publicly funded school meals (i.e. free school meals and those that children buy in school) are a vital mechanism to deliver healthy food to children, especially those from families with low incomes.

They 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.

And they argue that urgent policy changes are needed to cap the amount processed foods school lunches contain and to increase access to free school meals, which could help to boost the diets and health of Britain’s children.

You can read a full summary of the Imperial College research here.