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Crucial new kid’s food report published

With lurid names like ‘Candymania’, ‘Malteser Munch Madness’, ‘Mini Chocolate Challenge’ and ‘Triple Treats’ dominating the menus, children’s health comes second as family restaurants promote junk food over healthier options. Chips with almost everything, eat-as-much-as-like ice cream and bottomless fizzy drinks, containing dangerous levels of fat, sugar and salt, are being served up to over 40 million children in the UK each year, new research by the Soil Association and Organix reveals today. In contrast, the research also identified examples of some restaurants and visitor attractions doing great work, offering far healthier, fresh, unprocessed food choices.

A detailed survey of ten popular family restaurants exposes a continuing prevalence of junk being served up as ‘treat food’, despite eating out being a routine weekly event for a quarter of families. Whilst schools are changing their approach to school meals and making excellent efforts to provide fresher, healthier food for children, the UK’s family restaurants are failing to offer a healthy choice to children and parents who want it.

Junk food is still king – this is how the restaurants’ ranked out of a possible 30 points, based on nutrition, food sourcing and provision, food policy and information provision:

TGI Friday’s 1st = 16 points out of 30
Harvester 2nd = 15 points out of 30
Beefeater joint 2nd = 15 points out of 30
Pizza Hut 3rd = 14 points out of 30
Brewers Fayre 4th = 13 points out of 30
Garfunkels joint 5th = 12 points out of 30
Hungry Horse joint 5th = 12 points out of 30
Little Chef 6th = 11 points out of 30
Nando’s 7th = 10 points out of 30
Café Rouge 8th = 8 points out of 30

The full report, containing both surveys, is downloadable at www.soilassociation.org/realmealdeal.

Although TGI Friday’s received the highest score overall, this only showed up the pitiful meal options in the other restaurants. TGI Friday’s average children’s meal still contains over double the school meal maximum saturated fat content. Their burger in a bun with deep fried French fries and baked beans, followed by ‘Malteser Munch Madness’, contains one and a half times a primary school child’s recommended saturated fat intake for a whole day.

Café Rouge, ranked bottom of the league, also wins the booby prize for the least healthiest meal. Its croque monsieur (toasted cheese sandwich) with deep fried French fries, washed down with cola, and followed by ice cream, failed a record 10 out of 14 nutrition standards. The almost complete absence of fruit and vegetables on their children’s menu guaranteed their embarrassing bottom position.

Meanwhile, at Hungry Horse, it’s a ‘candymaniac catastrophe’. This restaurant scoops the prize for highest sugar and salt, with desserts like their monstrous ice cream, chocolate and sweet laden ‘Candymania’. This popular pudding contained four chocolate brownies, chocolate sauce, three scoops of vanilla ice-cream, three scoops of chocolate ice-cream, four strawberries, one bag of white chocolate Minstrel’s, a handful of Malteaser’s, a handful of Milky Way Magic Stars, a Wagon Wheel, a Milky Way Crispy Roll and topped with squirty cream. Needless to say, this provides a child with well over their recommended sugar intake for a whole day.

With the startling rise of obesity in children and the eating out industry now accounting for 31% of total food and drink expenditure, families desperately need these restaurants to be prioritising healthier meals. As family dining declines, we calculate that Whitbread restaurants (Beefeater, Brewer’s Fayre and TGI Friday’s) now serve one children’s meal for every 14.5 school meals served. So they and all other family restaurant chains have a clear responsibility to provide and promote healthy, nutritious food choices.

Not one chain, other than Pizza Hut, passed the fat and sugar tests and, alarmingly, almost none of the food is homemade. Parents might wonder why they didn’t stay at home with a ready meal. The only ‘cooking’ in most of these restaurant kitchens is opening packets and re-heating frozen meals, apart from cooking the odd bit of beef and chicken. Favourite foods, mashed potato and pasta meals, all came out of a packet – with one exception which was Café Rouge.

Not one of the restaurants sources food locally and you’ll only get organic if you’re still on baby food. There is a total absence of helpful, nutritional information in all the restaurants, apart from the occasional referral to ‘five a day’.

The report is based on findings by a leading, expert nutritionist who analysed 568 possible meal options for children and ranked the restaurants according to how their food compared to the Government’s new minimum standards for school meals. Shamefully, not one restaurant chain came close to meeting the new school meal standards. The results reveal a mountain of highly processed, additive-laden, junk food that contains all the risks that may lead to obesity and diet-related illnesses. For example, the average meal at Nando’s contains eight teaspoons of added sugar, taking a primary school child close to the recommended maximum for a whole day.

Peter Melchett, Soil Association policy director, said, “There is much to celebrate in the changes happening across the country to improve the quality of children’s school meals. Sadly, our survey of children’s food in restaurants reveals that all the major providers of children’s meals are simply continuing their unhealthy business of serving up junk food to children. We are not calling for a ban on junk food, but parents have a right to be provided with a choice of healthier meal options, and restaurants must take responsibility for this?.

Lizzie Vann, founder and managing director of Organix, said, “Parents have the right to know what’s in the food being served to their children and we hope this report will give the industry a much needed shake up. It amazes me that some of the biggest and most successful restaurant chains in the country are still getting it so wrong?.

Jeanette Orrey, dinner lady and writer, said, “I have been cooking fresh, nutritious and exciting food for children for over 20 years. I know kids will eat it and there is no reason why these companies should not be providing that choice?.

Healthy meals are possible. New family restaurant chain, Leon, shows it is possible to provide children with low-cost, fresh, healthy, nutritious, food in a fun environment. The expert nutritionist rated this restaurant highly, along with other exceptions like the National Trust‘s restaurants, YHA, Garden Organic’s restaurant at Ryton, Ikea and Center Parcs, which provides an excellent children’s menu with vegetables included in nearly all main meals. Similarly, The Tower of London and Eden Project show real progress in offering freshly prepared food. And Europe’s biggest family restaurant, the Rainforest Cafe in London, serves over 3,000 children’s meals a week, many of which are organic and made from fresh ingredients.

The Soil Association has written to the restaurants recommending the following:

* Always provide free drinking water
* Provide a range of tasty healthy choices, promoted to children on the menu
* Increase the availability and desirability of fresh fruit and vegetables and incorporate vegetables in the main dish, rather than as side orders
* Enable children to have half-portions of adult meals
* Raise ingredient quality, especially meat

This survey follows on from the Soil Association and Organix research earlier in 2006, investigating 14 leading tourist attractions’ food and drink provisions, published in August. The full report, containing both surveys, is downloadable at www.soilassociation.org/realmealdeal.

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