A nation raised on crisps and fizzy drinks?

The British Heart Foundation has carried out a survey of what secondary schoolchildren eat. It isn’t, needless to say, a blameless diet – but nor is it quite as noxious as the BHF pretends.

OnePoll, an organisation that uses online panels for carrying out surveys, gathered responses from 2,002 children aged 11 to 16 between 6 and 19 September this year. It asked first what the children normally ate for lunch, and got 6,743 responses – so, as you would expect, most respondents ticked more than one box.

A quarter said they had school dinner, and 61 per cent a sandwich (filling unspecified.) Just over a fifth said a chocolate bar, almost a third fruit, just over a third crisps, 18 per cent yogurt, 8.6 per cent soup and 9.0 per cent salad. That doesn’t sound very surprising, or especially dreadful.  It isn’t out of line with studies made of the contents of packed lunches by the School Food Trust, using a bigger sample and a much better methodology, but with primary rather than secondary school children.

The OnePoll survey also asked children what they drank. This attracted 3,947 responses so each respondent ticked, on average, two boxes. More than half said they drank water and 47 per cent squash, with more than a third saying fruit juice. Nearly a third said fizzy drinks, divided almost equally between diet and non-diet versions, and 7.4 per cent said energy drinks. But since there is an overlap it’s impossible to conclude from this that a third drink nothing but fizzy drinks or indeed a third nothing but fruit juice.

More illuminating answers came from the question: “On an average day, how many times do you eat chocolate, crisps, or sweets?” The commonest answer, from 39 per cent of respondents, was once a day; 26.6 per cent said twice a day, with smaller numbers saying any number up to 10 times a day.

The poll interprets this as an average of 2.19 times a day, but that is not the right measure. To avoid distortion by those claiming a huge intake of sweets or crisps, the median is better than the average. The median in this case is closer to one than two – it’s about 1.25.

Where I take exception to the BHF is in its claim, drawn from the results of the survey,  that a child’s typical daily diet includes “one packet of crisps, one chocolate bar, one bag of chewy jelly sweets, one fizzy drink and one energy drink”. From this it calculates children are consuming 118 g of sugar a day and more fat than a cheeseburger contains. The survey results cannot bear this interpretation.  

The median child (or kid, as the BHF prefers) consumes 1.25 items a day that fall into the “chocolate, crisps, or sweets” category, yet the BHF claims the typical daily diet includes three items falling into this category. As for drinks, only 20.5 per cent of all responses listed fizzy and energy drinks. It is not reasonable to claim from these results that a typical child drinks one of each every day.    

Needless to say, all the papers that reported the survey used the “typical diet” claim, when the actual results suggest that such a diet would be completely untypical. That’s not to say that children are eating a perfect diet, or even close to one: but they certainly aren’t doing as badly as the charity seems to believe on the evidence of its survey.

I suspect the “typical diet” claim was concocted to justify the BHF’s headline: “The real five-a-day? UK kids feast on chocolate, energy drinks and crisps”.

The questions asked and responses given do not appear on the BHF website, which is regrettable. But they were supplied to me on request and I have attached them as a PDF file below..