There’s been a great deal of discussion recently about ultra processed foods and the impact they have on health. 

Ultra processed foods are two steps away from eating fresh unprocessed food such as salads, whole fruit, food basically in its raw and unprocessed state. The next stage is processed foods where a basic food commodity has been altered to make alternative products such as processing milk to make cheese, natural yogurt without additives and ground cereals to produce flour. Then the super processed foods that are currently in the spotlight. This group includes cereals, packet soups, low fat yogurts, ready meals, biscuits, processed meats and instant desserts. Typically they may have artificial ingredients, isolates of ingredients, artificial sweeteners, colours and preservatives. Sugar, palm oil and modified starch are the first 3 ingredients of a pudding that I have seen throughout primary school catering which can be made in five minutes by adding milk. The advertising for this includes made with “real fruit” – 2% fruit powder and has no “artificial ingredients”. Many people would think this is okay with the marketing stating these positive messages. Some of the worst issues I’ve seen have been the offering for vegans and vegetarians. Processed meat substitutes such as vegan nuggets (which has has 29 ingredients) in some schools were served 3 and sometimes 4 times a week, with the alternative being a baked potato.

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Many schools are now struggling to meet the school food standards and others really don’t meet them on many levels. When I’ve visited schools and talked to school and catering staff, it is abundantly clear the aim in some kitchens is to avert hunger in children. Some are doing their best to provide good quality menus, but incorporate “cheats” around the standards in order to get the children fed. The children’s health

 and good habits are formed at a young age. In most schools better nutritional knowledge and culinary skills are necessary so that less reliance on processed foods and more freshly prepared dishes can be the standard. Also any menu changes can be made in the light of ingredients available without compromising the nutrition.

There has not been more challenging times in the school meal service sector in most people’s memory.  There have been increases in energy, rising food prices and food shortages. Avian flu has impacted on the price of chicken and eggs. Chicken has increased in price by 12.6% in the last year and eggs by 39%. Parents are struggling and are less likely to have the financial ability to provide good quality food outside of school time. This is a very real crisis for some families. 

So what’s the impact of poor nutrition in children? 

Poor nutrition compromises, mental wellbeing, physical development and academic achievement. It can cause behavioural problems which will be acutely felt, especially in the classroom and playground. Children are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, have cardiovascular problems and cancer now and in the future. We should all be motivated to provide some of the most vulnerable in society with the good diet they deserve.

Children, caterers and school staff are in a tough place and need and deserve additional assistance.

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