Crisps and processed ham: school packed lunches as unhealthy as they were ten years ago

Henry Bodkin
Sugar levels have decreased, but so too have vitamins - Getty Images Contributor

Children’s packed lunches are no healthier than they were 10 years ago, with processed ham sandwiches and packets of crisps still the norm, new research shows.

Ninety-eight per cent of packed lunches eaten by children at primary school fail to meet nutritional standards, the survey revealed.

Experts at the University of Leeds found just one in five included vegetables or salad.

While sugar levels have decreased significantly between 2006 and 2016 from an average of 40g per lunchbox to 24g, two-thirds of lunchboxes still contained higher than recommended levels.

Alongside this improvement, there has been a drop in essential vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin A, vitamin C and zinc.

The type of bread used in sandwiches has also changed, with unhealthy tortillas and wraps increasing in popularity from two to 13 per cent.

Mandatory standards for meals served in schools were introduced in 2006.

However, there is no regulatory legislation for food brought to school, which is done by more than half of primary-aged children.

More than a third of children aged 10 and 11 in England are obese, according to official figures, while 4.4 per cent of that year group - about 26,000 children - were so obese they needed medical help.

Published in the journal BMJ Open, the study found that plant-based fillings, such as hummus or vegetable spreads, made up less than one per cent.

There has been no reduction in the portion sizes of crisps between 2006 and 2016.

“Although some children’s packed lunches contain healthy foods, packed lunches continue to be dominated by sweet and savoury snack foods and sugary drinks," the authors said.

"A minority of children eat vegetables or salad and this hasn’t changed in the past 10 years.

“Although not directly comparable, results from this 2016 survey confirm that children’s packed lunches have improved in terms of levels of sugar provided, but continue to contain levels of saturated fat, added sugars and sodium that exceed current standards and recommendations.”

Information on the content and weight of individual items in packed lunches was collected from 1,148 children aged eight and nine in 76 schools across England in 2006, and from 323 children of the same age in 18 schools in 2016.

The percentage of packed lunches meeting all eight nutrition standards remained almost static across the ten years, changing from 1.1 to 1.6 per cent.