British primary and secondary school children are getting the majority of their lunchtime calories from “ultra-processed” food – increasing their risk of poor health and obesity, according to a study.
Overall, around 75% of calories across all types of school lunches came from ultra-processed foods (UPFs) such as bread, snacks, pudding and sugary drinks, research by Imperial College London and published in the journal Nutrients found.
On the whole, packed lunches contained more calories from highly processed foods at 82% compared to 64% in school meals across all ages.
However, within school meals, the study found that secondary schoolchildren had higher levels of UPFs (70% of calories) compared to primary schoolchildren (61% of calories).
Secondary school meals contained a higher proportion of calories from fast food items, puddings and desserts.
In general, children from lower-income backgrounds were more likely to have higher levels of high processed food on their plates (77% of calories) than children from higher-income backgrounds (71% of calories).
In primary school, almost half of the calories in packed lunches came from ultra-processed bread and snacks, compared to just 13% of calories of school meals.
Packed lunches also tended to have fewer calories from minimally processed fruit and vegetables, meat and dairy and starch such as pasta or potatoes, compared to school meals.
One of the largest contributors to ultra-processed calories as a proportion of grams of food intake came from fluids such as fizzy drinks, fruit juice or yogurt drinks.
Researchers looked at the diets of more than 3,300 children in primary and secondary school, collected through the National Diet and Nutrition survey, to examine the proportion of UPFs in food brought from home and school meals, including free school meals or food bought by students at the school canteen.
According to the team, one of the easiest and most cost-effective opportunities to improve the nutritional value of school lunches would be to swap high calorie, ultra-processed drinks for water.
The researchers said urgent policy changes were needed to cap the amount of processed foods within school lunches and to increase access to free school meals, which could help to boost the diets and the health of Britain’s children.
Previous research has linked regular consumption of UPFs with obesity and increased long-term risk of health conditions like Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
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.
“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.”
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.”