Processed meat and sugar cut from school menus

Scotland has set maximum limits for consumption of sugar and certain types of meat in school meals.

School food regulations will be amended for the first time in 10 years to ensure:

  • a maximum amount of red and processed red meat provision – such as bacon, ham and pepperoni – in school lunches to help reduce exposure to nitrites;
  • a minimum of two full portions of vegetables and a full portion of fruit are offered as part of a school lunch, with full portions of fruit and or vegetables also available in, for example, tuck shops;
  • removal of fruit juice and smoothies from primary and secondary schools to help reduce sugar intake.

A limit for free sugar has been set at 7.5% of recommended energy requirements for primary school age pupils. This is above the 5% in the Scottish Dietary Goals, a level that ministers considered too severe and would “constrain school menus significantly”. In secondary schools, the levels are the same.

Sweet treats, including baked products, should be served no more than three times per week, and contain no more than 15g of sugar per portion. There are also new criteria for breakfast cereals and yoghurts, as well as restrictions on pastry products to two times
per week.

Perhaps most controversial is the decision to reduce provision of red and red processed meat to no more than 175g per week for primary school children, of which no more than 100g can be processed. Breakfast clubs will not be permitted to serve any red processed meat. The limits present 50% of recommended daily intake.

In secondary schools, the limit is 230g, with no more than 130g red processed meat. This is a total allowance across all meals served, including breakfast clubs. Two sausages and two thin-cut rashers of bacon amounts to around 130g.

The government acknowledged the wide range of opinion relating to provision of meat, which included “no restriction on quantity” through to a “complete ban of all red meat”.

However, it said its limits are “underpinned by scientific evidence” and will “retain choice and at the same time protect the health of our young people”.

Deputy first minister John Swinney said: “We have set maximum limits for consumption of red processed meat which is linked to an increased risk of cancer. This will also reduce exposure to harmful nitrites.”

NFU Scotland said the new plans should be seen as an “opportunity” to source more local produce. However, the union’s president Andrew McCornick warned that there could be
unintended consequences with the new rules.

“What would be wholly unacceptable would be any further move towards imported protein sources such as imported chicken and pork or soya-based meat alternatives. Red meat, whether processed or unprocessed, is a valued source of high-quality, natural protein, vitamins and minerals and if it is truly committed to being a Good Food Nation, then Scottish Government must insist that every gram of red meat on the school menu – in whatever form – should be Scotch.”

In secondary schools, caterers will also need to better balance the energy content of meals to avoid highs and lows during the week. Salad or vegetables will have to be included in the price of a main meal (or as part of a free meal entitlement).

The changes are part of a new initiative to make school food healthier and reduce childhood obesity levels. Figures published in December by NHS Scotland’s statistics body, ISD, showed 22.4% of primary one children were above the healthy weight range and therefore “at risk of obesity of overweight”.

Claire Hislop, organisational lead for diet and healthy weight at NHS Health Scotland and a member of the technical working group which reviewed the current regulations, said the changes “will help create an environment in which children can choose a healthy, balanced diet."

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