The crisis in kids' nutrition

February 28, 2006

8 Min Read
The crisis in kids' nutrition

By way of a case study presentation, Lizzie Vann, founder of the United Kingdom's children's food company Organix Brands, discusses the critical issues the food industry needs to address

Worldwide, more than 22 million children under the age of 5 are severely overweight. This increases to 155 million for school-age children.

One of the most alarming effects of the obesity epidemic is the onset of type 2 diabetes, historically an adult's disease, but now increasingly found in children. The onset of this condition in childhood increases the risk in early adulthood of advanced complications, including cardiovascular disease, kidney failure, visual impairment and need for limb amputations. Childhood obesity will also contribute to a number of chronic diseases in adult life including heart disease, some cancers and osteoarthritis.

These health burdens come with huge financial implications for society as a whole. This issue warrants immediate and strong methods of prevention from families, schools, government, food manufacturers and policy makers.

The brain is being built between conception and 7 years of age. The reproductive system is developing until around 16 years old and the circulatory, respiratory and immune systems are built throughout childhood.

Without good nutrition those systems do not develop to their optimum level. Disrupting these systems with toxins such as pesticides and other agro-chemicals typically found in a poor diet has a life-long effect. It is important to establish a healthy eating pattern early in life, which can then be carried through into adulthood.

What can be done?
European legislation offers a certain level of protection for babies and children up to 18 months old by regulating the purity and nutritional quality of foods, and offers a complete ban on adulteration and on measurable levels of pesticide residues. After 18 months, it's left to the discretion of food manufacturers, schools and parental judgment. So, are children being failed by slippery marketing techniques from food companies, profit-conscious school food suppliers and ill-informed parents?

I have been a children's food campaigner for 30 years, informed by my own health problems during childhood. As a result of tackling those issues, I now believe that the wrong diet is an insidious destroyer of health. In 1992, I founded Organix, a baby and children's food company. We set out to be different from most food manufacturers. At the heart of the company is a deep understanding of the health issues surrounding pesticides, additives, food labelling, nutrition and food quality. Our over-riding principle is to share all we know with parents to allow them to make informed choices. And then we offer them a choice of good quality foods that conform to the promise we make to parents — that we will never adulterate, that we will only use organic ingredients, that we will never add colourings, flavourings, preservatives or processed sugar, and that the food will taste appealing to children.

We guarantee this with a 'No Junk Promise' (trademarked). This is defined as foods that are:

  • Pure: Always organically grown ingredients, and 100 per cent as far as technically possible (there is no organic certification for water or baking powder, for example).

  • Safe: No added processed sugar or concentrates, flavourings, flavour enhancements, GM ingredients or hydrogenated fat

  • Nutritious: Naturally nutrient rich, portions of fruit in fruit-based foods, reduced salt, fat and sugar in all foods

At Organix we believe that food manufacturers have a responsibility to provide parents with accurate, easy-to-understand information relating to the food they sell. Partial nutritional information on packaging is not good enough; it can be misleading and in some cases can do more harm than good. For example, some products are marketed to children and parents as a 'healthier' choice by emphasising one particular attribute of the food and masking the perhaps less-healthy elements in a complex list of ingredients.

Clever marketing can influence food choices made by parents and their children, but the nutritional quality of the foods marketed at children often fails to fulfil requirements for a healthy diet.

Food in schools
Since the introduction of Compulsory Competitive Tendering in the UK's school meals system in the 1980s, private companies have played an increasing role in the provision of school meals. Combined with the deregulation of nutritional aspects of the meals, the focus on cost reduction has resulted in a school meals system that is supported by less than half the total number of pupils.

But the health consequences of poor quality school foods, and a heavy dependence by the majority on packed lunches containing high sugar, high fat and high salt foods is at last being recognised. And across Europe, school food is changing fast. I believe the time is right for the food industry to grasp braver, wiser ways of working than cost control.

There are backward-thinking companies who focus on profit over nutrition and find ways to resist regulation and dissociate foods from health. They will be increasingly at a disadvantage. Those companies that begin to focus on nutrition will have a clear advantage. Nutrition will be the cornerstone of research, development and consumer relations for the next 10 years. Regulators and consumers are better informed about nutrition than some companies currently supplying school meals.

The UK harnessed creative grassroots efforts to get school meals to the top of the political agenda. This began in 2003 when we launched the 'Food for Life' campaign along with school dinner lady Jeanette Orrey, and the UK organic food certifier the Soil Association. A pilot study to improve food in primary schools took place, based on a belief that every primary school child has a right to healthy, nutritious and enjoyable school meals in pleasant surroundings.

As part of the study, we carried out a detailed nutritional analysis of the meals typically served in primary schools over a week. The results were appalling. Children eating five days of meals would consume 40 per cent more salt, 28 per cent more saturated fat and 20 per cent more sugar than is recommended. Children would also only receive 80 per cent of the amount of iron needed and 70 per cent of the recommended level of zinc.

The reference level of recommended nutrients used were those provided by the Caroline Walker Trust (CWT) for children aged 7-10. The CWT published Nutritional Guidelines for School Meals; Report of an Expert Working Group, in 1992.

Since deregulation in 1981, current government guidelines in England and Wales for primary school dinners do not place any upper limits on fat, sugar and salt content, nor lower limits on beneficial vitamins and minerals.

The Food for Life challenges are:

  • Meet CWT nutrition targets 100 per cent

  • Reduce processed food to a minimum ? no more than one day a week

  • At least 30 per cent organic ingredients

  • Use 50 per cent or more local ingredients, and make contact with those farms

  • Re-introduce compulsory food education, covering where food comes from, how to buy it and cook it, and the impact it has on health.

The Food For Life Code of Good Practice for the Food Industry includes:

  • No promotion of brands

  • No link between donations and commercial marketing

  • No use of dubious additives from the list defined by the Hyper-Active Children's Support Group and no mechanically recovered meat

  • A full nutritional breakdown of all foods to be made freely available.

What happened next
The Soil Association worked with the Departments of Education and Health, the providers on the supply chain and the Local Authorities Catering Association. A policy report was published in October 2003 and generated strong national coverage and debate over the following year. The celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched a popular TV series Jamie's School Dinners, just before the British General Election.

Three weeks before the election, in May 2005, the UK government announced a provisional plan to invest money in research, kitchen refurbishment and pilot studies. The School Meals Review Panel was also established, including key nutritionists, food campaigners, and consumer and industry representatives. The panel began reporting to the Secretary of State for Education and by October 2005 she had accepted the recommendations proposed to her.

The recommendations include:

  1. Every school to provide a hot meal, on-site, from fresh and seasonal ingredients

  2. Nutrition to meet CWT guidelines

  3. Guidelines for snacks, vending, breakfast and after-school clubs

  4. All pre-packaged savoury snacks and drinks to be removed from canteens and snack bars

  5. Food choices to be reduced

  6. Investment in kitchens and staff training

  7. New healthy vending projects coming

  8. Food preparation and practical cooking returned to the curriculum

  9. Additional costs of $285 million a year to be covered by Local Education Authorities, schools, parents and government

So, at last we see the beginning of a whole-food approach to nutrition in schools. Government, parents and the food industry are beginning to understand that the school canteen is an opportunity for nutritional education for life.

Teaching children how to make good food choices and offering them good nutritional foods should be seen as an investment for us all.

Lizzie Vann is founder of the UK children's food company Organix Brands. She has been a campaigner for the past 15 years, working to improve the UK's understanding of links between food quality and child health.

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