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Ultra-processed foods are robbing children of the experience of learning to eat

Ultra-processed foods are robbing children of the experience of learning to eat

TV chefs and food writers have today joined us in sending an open letter to the Prime Minister, warning that ultra-processed foods are “blindfolding” children to the diverse flavours and textures of whole foods, posing long-term risks to their health.

The letter urged Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to deliver five-a-day to a million children using our Food for Life “whole school approach” to good food with sensory education and better school meals.

Cosignatories on the letter include TV presenters, chefs and authors Yotam Ottolenghi, Dr Chris van Tulleken, Thomasina Miers, Bee Wilson, Kimberley Wilson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and key food organisations have supported the Soil Association’s campaign.

Soil Association launch 'Learning to Eat: The role of schools in addressing ultra processed diets' report.

Oona Buttafoco, Senior Policy Officer for Healthy and Sustainable Diets takes us through the recent report and how the work we do through our Food for Life programme provides a solution to many of the issues around UPFs

Setting children up for a lifetime of good health begins with the choices we make for them, especially when it comes to what's on their plates. But children in Britain today face significant challenges when it comes to forming a healthy relationship with food. Growing up surrounded by ultra-processed products, they are blindfolded to the diverse flavours, colours, and textures of whole foods. This not only puts their immediate health at risk, but also promotes a detrimental relationship with food that can persist into adulthood.

There are no easy solutions, but schools, nurseries and other early year settings can play a pivotal role in supporting children to develop a healthy and beneficial relationship with food. All schools should be supported to provide fresher, healthier food options and embed food education across all areas of school life.

What's the problem with ultra-processed food? 

A growing body of evidence suggests that overconsumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) during childhood disrupts the development of healthy eating habits and a grown-up palate. UPFs make up a whopping 67% of daily energy intake for under 14-year-olds in the UK.[1] This is a concerning reality, with UPF-rich diets being linked to increased body weight, dental issues, and potential long-term health risks. The issue isn’t just the excess of UPFs, but also the lack of healthy whole foods in children’s diets – according to new analysis, people in the UK are eating fewer vegetables than at any time in the last 50 years.

Currently, school food is the best available option for many children, as only 1.6% of packed lunches meet the same nutritional standards as school meals. However, there is room for improvement. Due to a range of factors including tighter budgets and a lack of facilities, school meals in the UK often include UPFs, making up 61% of energy intake from school meals for primary school children (compared to 81.2% for packed lunches).[2] With children spending over half of their time at school, this is a crucial environment for fostering healthy eating habits.

What is the impact on children?

Research shows that babies and children can be ‘predisposed’ to accept or reject certain foods, but the eating behaviours they learn from an early age play a crucial part in shaping their long-term food preferences. Exposure to UPFs during this important time disrupts the development of a healthy relationship with food, fostering a preference for products that are typically, soft, sweet and artificially flavoured. In turn, this can lead to a higher risk of developing health conditions in the short and long term, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

What's the Solution?

A comprehensive approach involving schools, caterers, families, and policymakers is essential for shifting children’s diets away from UPFs. The ‘whole school approach’ to food embodied in the Soil Association’s Food for Life Schools Award offers a template for healthy, sustainable eating in schools – increasing access to delicious, nutritious meals, connecting children with where their food comes from, and helping them cultivate an appreciation for fresh, minimally processed foods from a young age.

Independent evaluation shows the clear benefits of this approach, with children in Food for Life schools eating 75% freshly prepared meals and around one third more fruit and vegetables than pupils in comparison schools. This is not because they have been taught that they should, but because eating healthy school meals, learning about food, visiting farms, and growing fruits and vegetables has helped them develop a strong connection to real food.

What Action is Required to Get Us There?

We need urgent action to address children’s disrupted relationship with food:

  • All schools should be supported to take a whole school approach to food, following the example set by the Food for Life Schools Award.
  • Sensory food education should be rolled out in all schools, building on the model developed by TastEd, alongside practical cookery and food education across the curriculum, farms visits and growing.
  • Mandatory procurement standards should be implemented in schools, requiring that caterers source more organic, seasonal and agroecological produce for freshly prepared meals.
  • The School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme should be revised to source more British, local and organic produce, boosting fruit and vegetable consumption and introducing children to a range of textures and flavours.
  • A percentage reduction target for UPF in children’s diets should be introduced, achieved by boosting consumption of minimally processed fruits, vegetables and pulses.

How can you help?

The prevalence of UPFs in children’s diets poses a serious threat to children's health and wellbeing. It’s time to take action to reshape the school food landscape, ensuring that a ‘whole school approach’ to food becomes the norm, and that all children have access to healthy and sustainable meals, including plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

If you want to take action, you can;

  • Ask schools about what they’re doing on healthy and sustainable meals / food education

  • Support Food for Life

  • Demand policy changes to make healthy and sustainable food accessible to all children.

1 Parnham, J.C. et al. (2022). The Ultra-Processed Food Content of School Meals and Packed Lunches in the United Kingdom. Nutrients, 14(14), 2961; https://doi. org/10.3390/nu14142961
2 Parnham JC, Chang K, Rauber F, Levy RB, Millett C, Laverty AA, von Hinke S, Vamos EP. The Ultra-Processed Food Content of School Meals and Packed Lunches in the United Kingdom. Nutrients. 2022 Jul 20;14(14):2961