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Children's menus flunk nutrition standards

27th July 2004

Children's menu from Wacky WarehouseA new report on children's meals served in restaurants, cafés and leisure centres has uncovered a nutritional nightmare. Annie Seeley reports.

A meal outside the home was once considered an occasional treat. However as a nation we are now eating out more than ever. The calories and nutrients in these meals are likely to make a significant contribution to children's diets, and so it is all the more important that caterers ensure their children's meals are healthy ones.

But are they healthy? A new survey on children's menus reveals a clear NO!

In all, 141 children's meals were analysed and compared to the Caroline Walker Trust's (CWT) Nutritional Guidelines for School Meals.* Every single meal failed in one way or another to meet these guidelines.

The survey found a woeful lack of fruit and vegetables in the menus. Only two establishments offered a selection of fresh vegetables. Those that included pudding in the meal package offered no fruit.

Calories and fat

Calories: 57% of the meals exceeded the CWT guidelines for calories for 5-6 year olds and 37% for 7-10 year olds.

All children's meals analysed in Harvester, Adventure Kingdom and Ikea were too high in calories. The Rib Ticklers Meal in Harvester provided the most calories. At 1,270 kcals it was 2.6 and 2.3 times the maximum recommended energy content for 5-6 year olds and 7-10 year olds respectively.

Fat: 81% of the meals exceeded the guidelines for fat.

All children's meals in Natural History Museum, Adventure Kingdom, Tesco, Ikea, Fairlop Waters and Redbridge Sports Centre exceeded the total fat guidelines. Harvester's Rib Tickler meal again tipped the scales, with four times the maximum recommended level.

Saturated fat: 54% of the meals exceeded the saturated fat guidelines for 5-6 year olds, while 50% exceeded them for 7-10 year olds.

All children's meals in the Science Museum contained too much saturated fat. 80% of meals from family run restaurants and cafés had levels of saturated fat that exceeded the recommended intake for both age groups.

A Garfunkel’s hamburger, fries and baked beans meal contained not only double the recommended calorie intake for children aged 5-6 and almost double for 7-10 year olds. It also contained more than three times the maximum saturated fat content for a children’s meal.

Carbohydrates and fibre

Carbohydrates: The majority of the meals failed to meet the guideline recommended minimum amount of carbohydrates. None of the children's meals in Tesco, John Lewis, Ikea, London Zoo, Natural History Museum, as well as other outlets, contained the minimum guideline amount of carbohydrates.

Dietary fibre: Almost two thirds (65%) of the meals failed to meet the minimum recommended fibre content for 7-10 year olds. Almost half (48%) failed to meet the minimum recommended fibre content for 5-6 year olds. All children's meals provided by the Science Museum, Adventure Kingdom and Fairlop Waters were too low in fibre.

Micronutrients

A number of the meals analysed provided few essential vitamins and minerals such as: folate, vitamin A and vitamin C.

Iron: 60% of the meals were too low in iron for 5-6 year olds and 82% were too low in iron for 7-10 year olds. None of the children's meals provided by Ikea and Fairlop Waters contained enough iron.

Calcium: 70% and 79% of children's meals failed to meet the minimum guideline calcium levels for 5-6 year olds and 7-10 year olds respectively. All children's meals in John Lewis, London Zoo, Fairlop waters, Ikea, and Redbridge Sports Centre failed to meet the minimum guideline levels for calcium.

Vitamin A: 67% of the children's were too low in Vitamin A. None of the children's meals provided by Adventure Kingdom, Tesco, Ikea, David Lloyd and Fairlop Waters met the Caroline Walker Trust nutritional guidelines.

Folate: 37% and 66% of meals failed to meet the minimum guideline levels for 5-6 year olds and 7-10 year olds, respectively.

Vitamin C: 45% of the meals did not meet the guideline level for Vitamin C.

Zinc: 78% of the meals analysed did not meet the zinc guidelines. All children's meals provided by retail outlets and visitor attractions failed to meet the guideline recommendations for both age groups.

Sodium: Assuming that salt was not added during cooking or at the table, 37% of meals exceeded the guideline set for sodium in the 5-6 year age group and 8% for the 7-10 year olds. The highest levels of sodium were found in Beefeater, Harvester and Wacky Warehouse meals.

From the 141 menus analysed it was impossible in many cases to make a healthy choice. Indeed some outlets, such as Wacky Warehouse described a chicken nugget meal as 'healthy' despite exceeding recommended levels for fat and saturated fat.

Missing choices

These findings clearly show an urgent need to improve the nutritional quality of children's menus across the UK. This research has been submitted to the FSA in response to their Children's Food Promotion consultation and to the Department of Health for their Choosing Health consultation. The FSA is working on a nutrition criteria for all foods promoted to children (due to be published in March 2005).

In the meantime many outlets would do well to reduce the fat, sugar and salt content and increase the fruit, vegetable and complex carbohydrate content of their children's meals.

Background information

The survey was partly inspired by the Parents Jury Children's Menu Awards in 2003. In a follow-up study, Rachael Foulds, a post-graduate nutrition student at London Metropolitan University, questioned restaurant and café staff regarding portion sizes and the cooking methods of a range of children's meals, and calculated the nutritional quality of each portion served. Rachael's work was initiated and supervised by Dr Ruth Ash at Metropolitan University.

Soft drinks and puddings were excluded from the analysis unless they were included in the meal price.

Restaurants, cafés and outlets included in the survey:
Family establishments: Garfunkel's, Beefeater, Harvester. Visitor attractions: London Zoo, Natural History Museum, Science Museum. Soft play: Adventure Kingdom, Play Town, Wacky Warehouse. Retail outlets: John Lewis, Tesco, Ikea. Leisure Centres: David Lloyd, Fairlop Waters, Redbridge Sports Centre.

* The Caroline Walker Trust Guidelines for school meals state that the meal should provide not more than a third of a child's recommended intake of calories, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates or added sugar. The meal should provide not less than 30% of a child's recommended daily intake of protein, fibre and Vitamin A. Not less than 35% of Vitamin C and calcium and 40% of iron for the day should also be included in the school meal.

Useful resources

An Assessment of the Nutritional Adequacy of Children's Meal Provision in Restaurants - an extended summary of the MSc research dissertation authored by Rachael Foulds MSc, supervised by Dr. Ruth Ash (senior lecturer London Metropolitan University). Available to view as a PDF document. Click here to view 'An Assessment of the Nutritional Adequacy of Children's Meal Provision in Restaurants'

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