The research found that the quality of young children’s lunchboxes has only improved by 0.5% in the last 10 years.
Experts are now calling for packed lunch policies to be introduced to cut down on the amount of unhealthy foods, such as crisps, chocolate biscuits and sugary drinks being brought into schools.
Researchers at the University of Leeds found that lunchboxes continued to be filled with high levels of saturated fats, sugars and salts, with only one in five containing any vegetables or salad.
Of all the lunchboxes examined, less than 20% met the standards for energy, vitamin A, or zinc and only 26% met the standard for iron.
Three lunches, containing just a squash drink, a packet of crisps, a chocolate bar or roll and, in one box, a pasty, did not meet any standards for school food in England.
Between 52% and 60% of the packed lunches contained too many sweet and savoury snacks, while 46% included sugary drinks.
The research, commissioned by Flora, was carried out as a follow-up to a study in 2006 and found some improvements, including the majority of lunchboxes now meeting standards for protein and vitamin C and a reduction in the consumption of sweetened drinks and chocolate-based snacks. Saturated fats and sugars were found to have decreased but levels were still higher than recommended.
But the number of sweet snacks permitted by the school food standards, such as plain biscuits and cake without chocolate, has increased in the last 10 years.
Flora is now working with MP Sharon Hodgson, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) of School Food, to put children’s lunchboxes at the heart of the Government’s agenda to combat childhood obesity. The MP said the group had called for action to be taken on packed lunches.
Jo Nicholas, head of research at the Children’s Food Trust, said packed lunches were contributing to the country’s child obesity problem and the Trust was “disappointed” not to see packed lunch policies in the Government’s childhood obesity strategy.
She said: “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.”
Dr Charlotte Evans, nutritional epidemiologist and the study’s lead researcher, said the research showed new polices for schools, food manufacturers and retailers are needed.
She 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.”
Flora has distributed 631,000 lunchboxes and healthy meal planners to retailers throughout the UK and created an online portal with tips and recipes.