Children are being fed misleading information about healthy eating habits by food companies which try to pass off marketing as educational resources for schools, a report reveals today.
An analysis of teaching packs sent to schools by leading manufacturers shows lesson plans with questions such as "how many portions of milk, cheese and yogurt should we have a day?" (the answer, says the report – citing a pack from the Dairy Council, is three) and a "factsheet" describing "additives" as "gooditives".
Many of the claims would be outlawed by the Advertising Standards Authority – but they escape censure because school curriculum materials are exempt from such scrutiny.
Other examples of "misleading information" cited in the report commissioned by the Children's Food Campaign (CFC) include an exhortation – from the Food and Drink Federation – that overweight children should not reduce food intake to reduce weight. Vimto launched a poetry competition for schools where pupils were asked to devise the best "Why I Like Vimto" poem for a prize to coincide with National Poetry Day.
Vimto said when it launched the campaign in 2004 that it was encouraging pupils to use their imagination.
Sending free business-produced curriculum packs and sponsored resources into schools is endorsed in a "best practice" guide produced by the education department and British advertisers. Teachers' unions say their members feel under pressure to use them because they are free. The packs also mean teachers do not have to devise their own lesson plans.
The CFC report cites a leaflet drawn up by one of the advertising companies responsible for producing the materials sent out to its clients that told them they had in schools a "captive audience of some 7.5 million young people, their teachers, school managers, governors, parents and the wider community".
The CFC urged ministers to check and licence all curriculum materials before they are used in the classroom. Richard Watts, the campaign co-ordinator, said: "We were flabbergasted by some of the claims in these packs.
"We found nutrition lesson plans about the benefits of eating crisps, claiming that colourings in fizzy drink were to restore the fruit's natural colour and telling children to only eat fruit and vegetables in moderation. Promoting junk food in the classroom under the guise of education is unacceptable."
Lianna Hulbert, a CFC campaigner and co-author of the report, said: "The materials used to teach our children are totally unregulated. It's time to go beyond toothless 'guidelines'. If we can monitor these packs, why can't the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF)?"
The Food and Drink Federation said that the CFC "deliberately distorts what we say". Julian Hunt, its director of communications, said the full text argued that a healthy diet "should be positioned in positive terms and in combination with active living – as a means to all round good health and vitality rather than weight control". He added it was "a well recognised fact that children shouldn't be encouraged to obsess about not eating".
The CFC said two-thirds of the curriculum packs it surveyed contained company logos on materials designed to be seen by children, two-thirds contained promotions for a product and two-thirds misinformation. Every pack had at least one of the three problems.
A spokeswoman for the DCSF said: "The department is committed to supporting schools to equip children and young people with the skills and knowledge to make informed health and life choices."
The CFC's concerns are echoed by the National Union of Teachers. Itsacting general secretary, Christine Blower, said children should not be "exploited or misled by marketing of food products which make claims that are at best ambiguous or open to interpretation".
The report says: "Publicly, the companies and industries behind the packs say that providing educational materials to schools is part of their corporate social responsibility programmes, playing their part to help communities and schools around the country and educate young people.
"The role of schools in promoting critical thinking about the world and helping children to come to their own decisions, informed by balanced information, does not appear to feature in these organisations' aims. We consider that the role of teachers providing trustworthy knowledge is incompatible with worksheets and lessons provided by organisations with the aim of promoting a product."
Food for thought: What business is telling children
"Question: How many portions of milk, cheese or yoghurt should we have in a day? Answer: Three" (Dairy Council)
A chart showing how soft drinks are made refers to "gooditives" instead of additives (Britvic)
Competition for schools to coincide with National Poetry Day – "Why I Like Vimto" (Vimto)
"Colours restore the colour lost from food during processing and also make the food look brighter" (British Soft Drinks Association)
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