Fewer teenagers are eating chips for their school lunch, following the introduction of mandatory nutritional standards aimed at improving school meals, according to new research by the School Food Trust (SFT).
The national study - the first of its kind in secondary schools since legislation came into full effect in 2009 - revealed that the proportion of young people who had chips for their lunch was down from 43% in 2004 to 7% in 2011.
It also found that almost all schools had stopped selling chocolate, sweets and crisps completely since the compulsory standards came in, but nearly three-quarters of students that opted for a packed lunch were still bringing these types of foods into school.
The average school meal being eaten by secondary school pupils was also found to contain around a third less fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar in 2011 than it did in 2004.
However, despite the growing number of secondary school students having school meals, the research found that schools still needed to do even more to encourage them to fuel up well for their afternoon lessons.
It found that teenagers were still not choosing food combinations that would give them enough energy and nutrients to stay alert all afternoon.
The number of pupils having fruit, vegetables or salad with their lunch had doubled since the legislation came into force but this still needed to increase much further, and teens were still not eating enough of their "five-a-day" as part of their school meal.
Senior nutritionist Jo Nicholas, who led the secondary school research, said: "These findings show that even just 12 to 18 months after the final standards came into effect, as many secondary schools were getting to grips with the changes, the legislation was already making a significant impact - not just for what was on the menu but also for what teenagers were actually eating. Instead of 'chips with everything' we're starting to see signs of 'chips now and again'.
"It's also very clear that it's tougher for secondary schools to encourage students to make better choices than it is for primary schools, often because there is such a huge range of options on the menu. Caterers need to keep innovating to get teenagers eating even more fruit and veg, and to encourage them to have combinations of foods that will fuel them up properly.
"Ultimately, this research shows the really positive impact of the standards on the food on offer to young people at school, and on what they actually eat, in a short space of time."
The charity's chairman, Rob Rees, added: "Regulation may not always be popular, but evidence doesn't come much clearer of the difference it can make in tackling poor diet - one of the most serious and costly public health issues we face.
"If we want our schools to be places where children's minds and bodies are well nourished, it's abundantly clear from this research that the standards should be the very minimum we expect for food in all schools."
By Janie Manzoori-Stamford
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