A study carried out by Leeds University, commissioned by Flora, found that children’s lunchboxes are full of high levels of saturated fats, sugars and salts with too few fruits and vegetables, and with low levels of vitamins and minerals.
It found that just 1.6 per cent of children's lunchboxes surveyed met the nutritional standards for school food.
The research was carried out among 20 primary schools and 323 eight- and nine-year-olds.
The food provided in each child’s packed lunch was categorised according to the foods included in the standards for school meals set out in the School Food Plan. Researchers asked the children about their lunch and examined their lunch boxes before and after lunch to compare what had been provided with what children had actually consumed.
The findings show that just 17 per cent of children’s lunchboxes contained any vegetables or salad.
While more than half of the children’s packed lunches met the previous nutrient standards for protein, vitamin C and calcium, very few children met the standard for energy, which was either too high or too low.
Levels of fibre, vitamin A, iron and zinc were particularly low.
The report attributed this to the lack of fresh food in children’s packed lunches, such as salad and vegetables, as well as high levels of processed meat and fish, and the lack of wholegrains.
Sandwiches were by far the most commonly eaten packed lunch, eaten by 83 per cent of children, followed by crisps (60 per cent, fruit (57 per cent); biscuits and cakes (52 per cent), sugary drinks (46 per cent), and yoghurts (42 per cent).
Ham was the most common sandwich filling, with some children’s sandwiches very low in protein, containing jam or marmite. Vegetable fillings, such as hummus, were rare.
White bread was the most common, followed by tortilla wraps with few children eating wholemeal or brown bread.
The survey also found that although the proportion of children bringing in chocolate and sweetened drinks has dropped, levels of sweet snacks permitted by the school food standards - such as biscuits and cake without chocolate, have risen.
Lunches were scored against the school meals standards - five types of food are encouraged and include protein-rich food, low fat starchy food, dairy, fruit and vegetables.
Three types are restricted – sweetened drinks, confectionery, and savoury snacks, such as crisps.
A packed lunch of blackcurrant squash, a pasty, a packet of wotsits and a chocolate bar, for example, did not meet the standards.
The survey shows that packed lunches have hardly improved nutritionally since Flora’s last survey in 2006, when 1.1 per cent met standards for school meals.
The School Food Plan in 2014 set new standards for food, but nutrient-based standards were dropped as they were deemed too difficult to use effectively in schools.
Flora is now calling on the Government to raise awareness and do more to ensure that nutritional standards for school food are being met in packed lunches.
To help spearhead the campaign, Flora will be working with chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on School Food, Sharon Hodgson MP, to put the quality of children’s lunchboxes at the heart of the Government’s agenda to combat childhood obesity.
Ms Hodgson said, ‘The research highlights the need for more action to be taken on food put in children’s packed lunches, something which the School Food APPG has recently called for.
'Despite positive moves with regards to the food provided as part of a school meal, food brought in by children in their packed lunches is lagging behind. Therefore, we need more action to be taken if we want to see positive changes occur.’
Flora said it has distributed 631,000 lunchboxes to retailers throughout the UK, which contain a healthy lunchbox meal planner, online recipes and tips to make shopping and preparing a nutritionally balanced packed lunch easier.
Dr. Charlotte Evans, nutritional epidemiologist and the study’s lead researcher, said, ‘I hope the results of the study are an eye-opener, highlighting that more stringent policies need to be introduced if we want to see real change in the nutritional value of children’s packed lunches.
‘New policies for schools, food manufacturers and retailers are needed, which will require strong support from government and stakeholders if progress is to be made. Flora has made a good start, but we need everyone on board in order to make an impact.’
The survey’s findings chime with those of the Children’s Food Trust survey published last month, which also found that lunches contained biscuits, crisps and sugary drinks.
The charity is calling for schools to have a lunchbox policy.
Jo Nicholas, the trust’s head of research, said, ‘There’s a wealth of evidence to suggest we’re underestimating the contribution of packed lunches to our country’s child obesity problem.
'Our recent analysis of hundreds of millions of packed lunches eaten by children in the last year found that pester power is at work to drive products like crisps, chocolate biscuits and sugary drinks into many lunchboxes every day.
‘This is so tough for parents. We all want the reassurance that our children will eat a good lunch during their day at school. But when it’s foods like crisps, chocolate biscuits and sugary drinks that kids are asking for, or eating because they say they like those foods, they’re just filling up on empty calories.
‘We’ve got to do more to help parents and schools with this. Putting a packed lunch policy in place can be tough, but every school allowing packed lunches needs one if we’re going make life easier for parents and give kids a consistent message. It’s a step we were looking for in the Government’s childhood obesity strategy and we’re disappointed not to see it in there.’
Published last month by the Department of Health, the childhood obesity strategy was roundly dismissed by campaigners as lacking, largely because restrictions on advertising and promotional deals on junk food have been removed from the original plan.
Sarah Toule, head of Health Information at World Cancer Research Fund, said, 'The Government’s recent childhood obesity strategy was a missed opportunity, omitting a number of important policies which could have made a real difference.
'Twenty per cent of children are overweight by the time they start primary school – focusing attention on packed lunches is one of a number of ways we could help reverse this worrying trend.'