The State of Our Lunchboxes

There has been a whole lot of discussion in the last two weeks in Australia with regard to school lunchboxes and their contents. Led by an article on ABC News by Margaret Burin titled “What’s in our kids’ lunch boxes?” - the article literally dove into the contents of school lunchboxes and discussed how there was a huge disparity between what many Australian children eat for lunch. This was followed up this week with an opinion piece by Emma Beckett, which discussed some of the “whys” that this is happening, you can read this article here (I will refer back to this article later in my comments at the bottom of this post).

I preface this blog post with this: this is not about shaming children or parents, this is about continuing the conversation about the food our children are eating. How have we ended up here? What are the fundamental deficiencies in our society that has led to this? Why are families led to believe that this is the only way? There are more questions than answers, and I hope to contribute some answers. If any of the lunchboxes in this blog seem familiar, it is OK, you are doing your best with the time, money and tools you have on hand. I also want you to know that there is a path that you can take that will provide you a better result with the same time and money. I truly want to help you and your family.

I shared my thoughts on this article on social media, and there was a more discussion about how many parents were in a space of struggle to escape the packaged foods in lunch boxes cycle.

This led to me doing some deeper research to help understand the cost, the nutrition and the reasons as to why some children are being sent to school with nutritionally-poor foods. So my team and I crunched some numbers, and came out with some incredible results. We took two of the lunch boxes from the article and priced them at a major supermarket AND we combined the nutritional panels to show the macro nutrients in each lunchbox. But here’s the kicker, we then created a lunchbox from some of the easiest recipes from my archive (and one’s that store well frozen and are perfect for big batching). It’s a big review, so buckle up and read on to find out what we discovered.

Source: ABC News - Margaret Burin

Source: ABC News - Margaret Burin

Example Lunchbox #1

Here is what I would have classified as the “worst” of the lunchboxes in the story - I feel for both the child and the parent in this example. All the food in the lunchbox is packaged, and the only vegetable in the mix is potato.

Within The Lunchbox (and What’s the Cost?):

  • Mini Oreo - $0.40

  • Shapes Mini Chicken Crimpy Flavour - $0.33

  • French Fries - $0.53

  • Twisties - $0.52

  • LCM Coco Pops - $0.50

  • Mini Wafers - $0.42

  • Juice Popper - $0.75

  • Wedges (from the Tuckshop) - $4.50

The total cost (true supermarket prices) for this lunchbox is $7.95. The time invested in this lunchbox is limited, literally the time to shop for the packaged foods and the time it took to put it in the lunchbox.

What’s in The Food?

I dug into the ingredient lists and have shared them verbatim here, where there are whole foods (i.e. foods that haven’t been modified dramatically from their original form) I have bolded them. I haven’t included sugar or salt in this, because I think added sugar is unnecessary and the quality of the salt is unknown.

Mini Oreos - Wheat Flour, Sugar, Vegetable Oil (contains Antioxidant (319)), Cocoa Powder (4.5%), Glucose Syrup, Raising Agents (500, 503), Salt, Maize Starch, Emulsifier (Soy Lecithin), Flavour. 

Shapes Mini Chicken Crimpy - Wheat Flour, Malt Extract (From Barley), Baking Powder, Flavour Enhancers (E621, E635), Onion Powder, Natural Flavour, Maltodextrin (Maize), Chicken, Spices, Antioxidants (E304, E307B From Soy), Emulsifier (Soy Lecithin).

French Fries - Potatoes, Vegetable Oil, Salt

Twisties - Cereals (Corn, Rice), Whey Powder (Milk), Cheese Powder (Barley, Milk), Flavour Enhancers (621, 635), Hydrolysed Vegetable Protein, Yeast Extract, Mineral Salt (Potassium Chloride), Cream Powder (Milk), Milk Powder, Natural Colours (Paprika Extract, Carotene), Food Acid (Lactic Acid).

LCM Coco Pops - Choc Compound (18%)(Sugar, Vegetable Fat, Milk Solids, Cocoa Powder, Emulsifier [Soy Lecithin, 476, 4911, Flavour, Salt), Rice Bubbles (16%)(Whole White Rice, Sugar, Salt, Barley Malt Extract), Glucose, Fructose Powder, Invert Sugar, Hydrogenated Soyabean Oil (Antioxidants [304, 307Bll, Sugar, Glucose Solids, Cocoa (1.5%1, Skim Milk Powder, Humectant (Glycerol), Gelatine, Emulsifiers (Soy Lecithin, 471E), Salt, Natural Flavour.

Mini Wafer - Sugar, Wheat Flour, Vegetable Fat (Coconut Oil), Non Fat Milk Powder, Cornflour, Cocoa Powder, Emulsifier (Soy lecithin), Salt, Colours (Caramel I, Carmine, Paprika), Natural Flavours, Raising Agent (500). Contains Minimum 70% Cream Filling.

Juice Popper - Reconstituted Fruit Juice [Apple (63%), Orange (20%), Pineapple (15%), Passion Fruit (1.0%), Banana Puree (0.5%), Food Acid (Citric Acid), Flavours, Vitamin C.

Wedges - Potato (87%), Seasoning (Wheat Flour, Wheat Starch, Salt, Maize Flour, Paprika, Onion Powder, Garlic Powder, Black Pepper), Canola Oil, Dextrose.

That is quite the menu of ingredients!!! There is over 60 ingredients in this lunchbox. SIXTY.

What is the Nutritional Value?**

Unfortunately the data available on the complete nutrition of these foods is unavailable, but I was able to use the nutritional panels on each of these products to compile a total of the panels required by law for macro nutrients. The numbers are astounding. I have also compared where Recommended Dietary Intakes exist for an 11 year old child and an adult male (1.8m tall). Interestingly there are no recommended dietary intakes for fat or sugar!

Screenshot 2019-02-21 18.32.32.png

This lunchbox, if all eaten, would have provided 80% of the energy requirements for an adult male - AND exceeds the energy requirements of an 11 year old child by 527kJ. Further, the sodium content is almost matching the recommended sodium intake for an adult male. The other concerning numbers are the high amounts of saturated fats and free sugars in the food (and not from whole foods).

Source: ABC News - Margaret Burin

Source: ABC News - Margaret Burin

Example Lunchbox #2

This lunchbox was a little further along the spectrum. It offered a homemade wrap and a banana with other packaged foods. Definitely a step in the right direction. Let’s look at this lunchbox in the same way.

Within The Lunchbox (and What’s the Cost?):

  • Le Snak - $0.46

  • Smiths Chips - $0.27

  • Juice Popper - $0.75

  • Kinder Bueno - $2.00

  • Banana - $0.88

  • Wrap - $0.63 (plus fillings of ham ($0.96) and cheese ($0.31))

The total cost (true supermarket prices) for this lunchbox is $6.26. The time invested is in the sourcing of the foods, the creation of the simple wrap and the packing of the lunchbox, marginally more than Lunchbox #1.

What’s in The Food?

I’ve done the same here, I’ve taken the ingredients lists verbatim and pasted below. I’ve also bolded the whole food ingredients.

Le Snak: Cheese Spread [Cheddar Cheese (45%)( Milk , Salt, Starter Culture), Water, Margarine (Vegetable Fats and Oils, Water, Salt, Milk Solids, Emulsifiers[ Soy Lecithin, 471], Antioxidants[304, 307b from Soy ]), Flavour [Lactose ( Milk ), Yeast Extract, Salt], Whey Powder ( Milk ), Milk Mineral, Mineral Salts (339, 452), Preservative (234)]. Cracker [ Wheat Flour, Vegetable Fats and Oils [ Antioxidants (307, 307b from Soy )], Wholemeal Wheat Flour , Sugar, Wheat Bran , Invert Syrup, Salt, Raising Agents (503, 500), Poppy Seeds, Wheat Germ].

Smiths Chips – Salt & Vinegar - Potatoes, Vegetable Oils (Sunflower And/Or Canola), Food Acids (Sodium Diacetate, Citric Acid), Lactose (Milk), Salt, Mineral Salt (Potassium Chloride), Sugar, Flavour Enhancer (621), Dextrose, Natural Flavours.

Juice Popper - Reconstituted Apple Juice (84.7%), Reconstituted Mango Puree (15%), Vitamin C, Food Acid (Malic Acid).

Kinder Bueno - Milk Chocolate (31.5%) (Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Cocoa Mass, Skim Milk Powder, Anhydrous Milkfat, Emulsifier: Lecithins (Soy), Flavouring: Vanillin), Sugar, Vegetable Oil (Palm), Wheat Flour, Hazelnuts (10.5%), Skim Milk Powder, Whole Milk Powder, Dark Chocolate (Sugar, Cocoa Mass, Cocoa Butter, Emulsifier: Lecithin (Soy), Flavouring: Vanillin), Fat - Reduced Cocoa Powder, Emulsifier (Lecithins) (Soy), Raising Agents (Sodium Bicarbonate, Ammonium Carbonate), Salt, Flavouring (Vanillin)

Banana – Banana!

Wrap - Wheat Flour (72%) (Thiamine, Folic Acid), Water, Mineral Salts (450, 500), Iodised Salt, Vegetable Oil [Antioxidant (320)], Sugar, Vegetable Gums (412, 466), Emulsifier (471), Acidity Regulator (297), Preservatives (282, 200).

Sliced Ham - Pork (73%), Water, Salt, Acidity Regulators (326, 262), Dextrose (Maize, Tapioca), Emulsifiers (450, 451, 508), Pork Protein (Herb Extract), Sugar, Modified Tapioca Starch (1412), Thickener (407a), Antioxidant (316), Sodium Nitrite (250), Potato Fibre, Citrus Fibre, Canola Oil, Smoke Flavour.

Sliced Cheese - Pasteurised Milk, Salt, Starter Cultures, Non-Animal Rennet

This is largely not much better than Lunchbox #1, there are more food additives than you can poke a stick at. It makes you rethink whether these “foods” are truly food. Or are they frankenfoods?

What is the Nutritional Value?

This lunchbox performs better than lunchbox #1 when it comes to energy intake, it leaves 1500kJ for the child to eat for breakfast, snacks and dinner (if they were 11 years old). However the sodium levels EXCEEDS the recommended intake for an adult male. This is scary. Too much sodium in the body can have dramatic impacts on the heart and blood pressure (see this report from Harvard). Food manufacturers have to shape up here, they are filling their foods with salt, fat and sugar without care for the child who is eating the food.

Screenshot 2019-02-21 18.46.59.png
The Kitchen Coach Lunchbox.jpg

Example Lunchbox #3

This lunchbox wasn’t in the article, searched through my easy recipe archive and pulled together what I thought was a tasty, easy and nutritious lunchbox. No packets, all real food, even with a sweet treat for the lucky kid! I also worked out the embedded cost in each home made item (based on supermarket ingredient prices) to help compare apples to apples!

Within The Lunchbox (and What’s the Cost?):

  • Savoury Pancake - $1.43

  • Hummus - $0.71

  • Choc Veggie Cake - $0.89

  • Carrot Sticks - $0.15

  • Celery Sticks - $0.29

  • Banana - $0.88

  • Apple - $0.57

  • Popcorn - $0.19

The total cost for this lunchbox is $5.11. Cheaper than both of the examples shared in the ABC article. The time invested is higher, but all the home made foods can be made in bulk batches AND stored easily in the freezer for easy grab for lunch box packing.

What’s in The Food?

In this case I haven’t bolded the whole food ingredients because they are ALL whole foods!

Savoury Pancakes – Zucchini, Carrot, Onion, Green Onions, Sweet Potato, Parsley, All-purpose Herb Mix, Celtic/Himalayan Salt, Apple Cider Vinegar, Olive Oil, Egg, Buckwheat Flour, Baking Soda.

Hummus – Chickpeas, Tahini, Olive Oil, Lemon, Garlic, Salt, Cumin 

Chocolate Veggie Cake - Beetroots, Zucchini, Chia seeds, Buckwheat Flour, Cacao Powder, Coconut, Baking Powder, Salt, Vanilla Powder, Coconut Oil, Dates, Egg, Tahini

Carrot Sticks – Carrot

Celery Sticks – Celery

Banana – Banana

 Apple – Apple

 Popcorn – Popping Corn, Salt

What is the Nutritional Value?

Screenshot 2019-02-21 19.04.03.png

This lunchbox brings a reasonable amount of calorific energy for the child, with ample protein, and significantly reduced sodium. The interesting thing to note with the nutritional panel is that it puts fruit sugars in the sugars category, making it appear to be “full” of sugar. In this case the sugar comes from the beetroot, dates, carrot, banana and apple - not processed sugar. The total carbohydrates will also include significant amounts of fibre compared to the previous 2 lunchbox examples, which is highly beneficial.

What’s the Verdict?

There is so much to unpack here, comparing apples to apples highlights some major things. The biggest take away is real food CAN be cheaper than packaged, processed foods. This review also highlights another major issue, processed foods contain too many ingredients that are not healthful to the body, sodium and fat levels are simply too high in these foods. I believe there is a need for a huge shift with food that targets children (i.e. the lunchbox section in the supermarket) - there are two approaches, 1) the government could regulate it to improve the health outcomes for the consumer or 2) the manufacturers face up to their practices and make changes to their offerings that have a net benefit to the consumer. There is a third approach that I advocate, and that is to cut out the packets and feed real, whole foods to your children - manufacturers would not be happy with this approach, but it wouldn’t take long for them to hear our “votes” with our dollars. Taking back control of what fuels our children is crucial for the health of our communities, our country, and our future.


An Addendum…

I wanted to comment on the opinion article from Emma Beckett. She made some valid points in relation to the why lunchboxes are the way they are, but I believe all of these are easily surmountable if a person is willing to do so (at very little cost).

Cost

The opinion pice mentioned that whilst processed foods cost more, they were beneficial due to their shelf life and less spoilage risk compared to fresh foods. The scary thing is she also identified the biggest issue with packaged foods, that they can last up to YEARS - if the packaged food is food it is completely unnatural for it to last years without spoilage!

Another point here is why our society has let our communities get to the point where affordability of food is an issue. This goes beyond this blog, but I believe that EVERYONE has the right to access fresh, real food - at a price that they can afford and thrive upon. Eating real food has a huge impact on the community, through better health outcomes, better school results and less drain on our medical system.

Real, whole foods are cheaper for the consumer, this is proven via the examples of the lunchboxes above. With a small time investment required to turn them into lunchbox worthy foods that can be stored for weeks in the freezer. PLUS the savings from the real food is significant, just from my lunchbox example above, a family would save $230 per child if they changed their lunchbox to whole food!!!

Storage

The opinion piece made some goods points around families not necessarily having the storage for fresh foods (or from meal preps) - whilst I see the point, when it comes to preparing whole food meals, these can be stored easily in a freezer (which can be bought on FB marketplace for ~$50!). The lunchbox example I gave, all the prepared foods can be made in advance and frozen for easy access when putting the lunchbox together. Many fruits and vegetables can store well in fridges, and if there is strategy to preparing meals, there will be minimal wastage.

Transport

There has been a lot of discussion around food deserts in Australia (i.e. more than 1600m to a grocery store for a family without a vehicle) - there has been little done to help rectify this. Filling the gap are convenience stores, which rarely stock fresh produce, and usually stock foods that are more snack foods rather than complete meals. Home delivery services are now beginning to fill the gap for those without time or transport, so hopefully this will kill the food desert issues. When someone has to make a decision that impacts on their health, rather than improves their health, this is a systemic failure on multiple levels - education, food distribution, government and the manufacturers.

Final Note

Saying that including processed and packaged foods in your diet is ok is potentially dangerous. When many of the foods on our supermarket shelves have levels of sodium, sugar and fat that are simply unhealthy, it is not ideal to have these feature in your diet (if at all!). There are however many packaged foods that are relatively healthy, and contain minimal artificial additives - these are items that should be given massive gold stars for thinking of the consumer’s health (NOT the bottom line).

The disparity in offerings poses one question, can food manufacturers be their own police when it comes to ingredients? When the same shelf can host a healthy snack bar and a processed sugar-laden treat, there is something that wrong with our food system.

Our kids deserve leadership on this issue, we are relying on low-nutrition foods to fuel them, and we wonder why the classroom is full of children that can’t hold attention and children who are under-nourished due to the food choices they are given. Something must change, and the question is, who will take the lead?

**RDI Values taken from https://www.nrv.gov.au/introduction