Food manufacturers have been heavily criticised for allegedly contributing to the growing levels of childhood obesity in the UK through advertising and marketing inappropriate products (i.e. with high sugar or fat contents) directly to children.
Last week’s recommendation by the UK advertising watchdog Ofcom that an outright ban on advertising food and drink brands to children would not be effective in curbing health problems has offered some respite to beleaguered manufacturers, but campaigners such as the Food Commission are clearly not prepared to let the matter lie, opening a second front to take on the foodservice sector.
The Food Commission carried out a survey of 141 children's meals in popular restaurants in the UK and found that every one of them failed to meet the minimal standards recommended for schools. Many meals contained high levels of fat and saturated fat, and many had excessive calories and insufficient essential vitamins and minerals, the survey found.
The nutrition guidelines for school meals were adopted in England in 2001 and state that a single meal should provide not more than a third of a child's recommended daily intake of calories, fat, saturated fat or added sugar. The meal should also provide at least 30 per cent of a child's recommended daily intake of protein, fibre and vitamin A, at least 35 per cent of calcium and vitamin C, and at least 40 per cent of iron.
The worst offenders discovered by the Food Commission’s report were restaurant chains such as Harvester, Wacky Warehouse and Garfunkel’s.
Harvester's Rib Ticklers meal, for example, were found to provide more than two times the maximum recommended calorie intake, four times the maximum recommended fat content and more than three times the saturated fat content for a children's meal.
The Wacky Warehouse chicken nugget meal, meanwhile, was called a 'healthy option' by the company despite containing too much fat, saturated fat and calories, and insufficient amounts of fibre, iron, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate and sodium, according to the Food Commission.
The chain, owned by the Spirit pub group, flags up its kid-friendly credentials on its website, stating “our most recent accolade is The Pub Business Magazine Best (Children’s) Menu 2000 awarded to the Wacky Menu because of its […] healthy options”.
Garfunkel's has already been criticised for its children’s menus, winning a ‘Nasty Nosh Award’ from the Food Commission’s Parents Jury in July 2003 for the low standard of its children's menus. Parents criticised the chain for offering what it called “the usual kids' menu - heavily processed with little nutritional value”, with no fruit or vegetables available other than baked beans and most of the foods providing a “mainly fried and unimaginative choice”.
This was confirmed by the Food Commission’s latest survey, which showed that the chain’s hamburger, fries and baked beans meal provided double the recommended calorie intake for children aged 5-6 and almost double for 7-10 year olds. It also contained more than twice the recommended fat and more than three times maximum saturated fat content for a children's meal.
Rachael Foulds, author of the Food Commission research, said that most of the meals analysed were energy dense and low in fibre and essential vitamins and minerals. “We found a woeful lack of fruit and vegetables on the menus. Only two menus offered a selection of fresh vegetables, while those that included pudding in the meal failed to offer any fruit. Consequently it was very difficult to choose a healthy meal from the children's menus.”
The research was undertaken by London Metropolitan University and was inspired by the Children's Menu Awards, held in July last year by The Food Commission's Parents Jury. The awards showed that it was difficult to find healthy restaurant food for children, with most menus offering a restricted choice of deep-fried foods such as chicken nuggets and chips.
The Parents Jury was launched in 2002 by the Food Commission as an opportunity for parents to express their views about children's food and food marketing.
Annie Seeley, nutritionist and co-ordinator of The Parent's Jury said: “This research confirms what many parents feared. Families are eating out more than ever before but these meals perpetuate the cultural norm that children's food should be highly processed and devoid of fresh vegetables or fruit. These outlets must take greater responsibility and improve the quality of their children's meals.”
School dinners no better
Kids seem to get a rough time of it wherever they eat, it appears. A survey carried out by Which? magazine in March last year showed that even the introduction of nutritional standards for school dinners had failed to have much of an impact.
Around four million school meals are cooked every day in Britain, serving around 45 per cent of all school children, according to Which?, the magazine of the UK Consumers’ Association. In some cases, school meals are the main meal of the day, and as such should provide a nutritious, balanced diet, the organisation argues.
. Yet the magazine’s survey of 246 children and their eating habits shows that this is generally far from the case. Children were still eating lots of crisps, chips and chocolate bars, and their diets were found to be high in saturated fat, sugar and salt. Many of the kids' diets were also low in important nutrients, including iron, zinc, protein, calcium, folate and vitamins A and C.
The UK government advises that eating five portions of fruit or vegetables a day can help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease, but the children surveyed by Which? ate an average of just two portions a day, with older boys managing only 1.5 portions.
More tellingly, school meals contributed less than one portion of fruit and vegetables a day to the children's diets, the survey showed.
The school meals reported in the diaries were repetitive, and often read like a fast food menu. Pizza, chicken nuggets, and fishcakes were among the most popular main courses, while chips and ‘potato-based smiley faces’ were the most frequently eaten starchy food. Baked beans (which usually contain added salt and sugar) were the most common vegetable.
The problem is not one of choice, however. Menus from the schools visited indicated that the caterers were generally meeting the government’s nutritional standards, with a wide variety of foods, including vegetables, salad and fruit on offer every day. The fact is that the children usually opted for the less healthy dishes.
Better nutritional education is frequently cited as one of the most likely means of improving the nation’s eating habits, but the Which? survey also suggested that the solution was likely to be far more complicated than that. Most children surveyed seemed to know which foods were good for them, and that diet was important for their health both now and in the future. The problem was that this was not enough to influence their eating habits, which tended to focus on foods which they knew were likely to be considered as ‘bad’.
What is needed, the magazine argued, is a new evaluation of healthy eating and catering initiatives in schools to identify which are most effective in encouraging healthy eating. Furthermore, nutritious options need to be made more appealing in order to offer a real alternative to the ubiquitous chicken nuggets and chips.
While Which?’s survey of school food choices was broadly optimistic – even if the healthy options were seldom chosen – the Food Commission was altogether more pessimistic about the chances of Britain’s school children improving their diets.
It highlighted a recent advert in the Times Educational Supplement - the most prestigious education publication in the UK – from Nestlé which described how the company was “helping education caterers encourage pupils to have a balanced lifestyle” - through the provision in schools of what the company called ‘Refuel:Pods’ – in other words, vending machines.
According to the Food Commission, Joe Walsh, Nestlé's marketing director of food services, claims that “Refuel:Pods can play an important role in explaining the importance of a balanced diet”.
But the Commission said that the list of products to be available in the Pod did not make for healthy reading. Every savoury product available is high in salt, while other products are high in sugar and fat, including Aero Chunky, Nestlé Double Cream, Polos, Kit Kat Chunky and Toffee Crisp. Even the breakfast bars were high in added sugar, the Food Commission claimed.
Of the 46 listed products to be available in the Pods, no more than seven (just 15 per cent) could be deemed to be relatively healthy (dried fruits, fruit juices and sugar-free Polos), according to the Commission.
“Nestlé claims to offer, 'products with varying energy content to suit the needs of different children', but faced with a vending machine full of crisps and sweets, are kids really going to seek out the handful of healthier snacks on offer?,” the Food Commission asks, underlining the findings of the Which? survey.
Kids – and indeed their parents – have always enjoyed foods which are high in sugar and fat, satisfying their desire for indulgence or luxury. The problem is that this kind of food has now become so widespread that, far from being an occasional treat, it is the standard fare for most children, so much so that they will choose it over the healthy option even when they know they should not – and that is a mindset which will be extremely hard to overturn.