Hong Kong’s schoolchildren are getting less salt, sugar and fat in their lunches but consuming too much protein and not enough dietary fibre, health officials have determined.
The city’s Centre for Health Protection and Centre for Food Safety jointly released their findings on Wednesday from tests done on 100 lunchbox samples ahead of the new academic year.
The samples were collected from 26 primary schools in January this year.
Assistant director of health Dr Anne Fung Yu-kei said test results showed improved nutrient levels in pupils’ school lunches compared with the last survey five years ago.
“Total fats, saturated fats, trans fats and sugars in more than 90 per cent of the lunch samples were below the upper limits of recommended intake,” Fung noted.
It was also encouraging, she added, to see the average sodium content per lunch had “significantly dropped from 951mg in a similar survey in 2013 to 818mg in this test, representing a 14 per cent decrease”.
Examples of meals with the most salt were udon with bean curd sheet roll and mixed vegetables, baked pasta with meat balls in low-fat cheese sauce, as well as rice with soybean sheet and lotus root.
Hong Kong had close to 600 local, private and international primary schools enrolling about 362,000 pupils in the last school year, with most parents ordering lunchboxes for them from caterers.
Fung believed it would take a decade before the city could reach the desired level of 500mg of salt per lunchbox. Health authorities have targeted reducing sodium levels by 5 to 10 per cent each year.
Excessive salt intake increases the risk of hypertension, which is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke and other non-communicable diseases.
Another nutrient which officials have singled out to improve children’s lunches is dietary fibre.
Although the average dietary fibre content was 5.1g – higher than the recommended intake of 4g – Fung said that “in 40 per cent of the samples, the amount was less than the recommended intake”.
Dietary fibre helps to prevent constipation and cardiovascular diseases as well as maintaining body weight.
“Inadequate intake will increase the risk of colorectal cancer,” Fung added.
The tests also found that mean protein content was 21.6g, higher than the recommended intake of 13.3g.
“The problem is probably because of the non-vegetarian lunches,” Fung noted. “We found that protein content is 1.8 times the recommended level.”
Protein is an essential nutrient for growth and development, but too much of it strains the kidneys and liver.
Aside from convincing them to cut sodium content in their food, providers were asked to maintain the proportion of three grains, two vegetables and one meat item per lunch.
Fung said if providers merely served more brown rice and corn, the amount of dietary fibre in lunchboxes would increase.
Officials also urged more fruit consumption. They suggested schools get lunchbox suppliers to provide fruit or encourage parents to pack fruit for their children.