Tuckshop price check: unhealthy meals significantly cheaper than healthy alternatives, analysis reveals

Children may be swayed towards buying cheaper, unhealthy food at the school canteen.
Children may be swayed towards buying cheaper, unhealthy food at the school canteen.  Photo: Monkey Business Images

When school students peer over the canteen counter clutching a few coins in pocket money, having less than a dollar can mean the difference between a nutritious meal or a hot dog for lunch.

Too many NSW children might be leaning towards the hot dog as the most comprehensive analysis of canteen menus in NSW schools reveals glaring price gaps between healthy and unhealthy options.

Menu items that fell into the unhealthiest category were cheaper on average than the healthiest options for hot meals, drinks and snacks, the analysis of canteen menu price lists at 70 schools in an unidentified region of NSW showed.

"Green" hot foods (menu items that dieticians deemed had good sources of nutrients) were on average 50¢ more expensive than "red" hot food (menu items that lacked adequate nutritional value, and were high in saturated fat, sugar and salt), the study published on Wednesday in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health found.

Green drinks (water, Milo and a 100 per cent apple juice popper) were on average 29¢ more expensive than red drinks (35 per cent fruit drink popper), and green snacks (fruit, boiled egg and popcorn) were 21¢ more expensive than the red alternatives (biscuits and banana bread).

"It doesn't sound like very much, but we know kids are highly motivated by taste and price," said lead researcher Dr Rebecca Wyse at the University of Newcastle's school of medicine and public health.

"When they have a limited amount to spend at the canteen, price matters," she said.

Schools had progressively ditched red foods from their tuckshop shelves since the Fresh Tastes at School "traffic light" guidelines recommended all red foods be removed from menus and only be available twice each school term.

The researchers focused their investigation to price comparisons between green and the more prevalent "amber" menu items: food with some nutritional value but moderate levels of saturated fat, sugar or salt.

"The price of green main meals were significantly higher than amber equivalents," Dr Wyse said.

"There is pretty limited incentive to choose green foods."

Healthy sandwiches (salad, egg and baked beans) were on average 43¢ more expensive than amber alternatives (vegemite and jam).

Green hot foods were 71¢ more pricey than amber options (nuggets, pies and sausage rolls).

The reverse was true of the snacks and drinks categories. Green snacks were 18¢ cheaper than amber options (fairy bread), frozen amber snacks (zooper doopers) were 25¢ more expensive and green drinks were 13¢ cheaper than amber items (full fat milkshake, flavoured mineral water).

"Current pricing may not encourage the purchasing of healthy main-meal items by and for students," the authors concluded.

But there were opportunities to improve the chances of children choosing healthier canteen options, Dr Wyse said.

US studies had shown dropping the price of healthy snacks in vending machines doubled sales. Other studies at US university cafeterias achieved similar results, Dr Wyse said.

"Canteen managers have to juggle so much … [purchasing decisions], the sustainability of the canteen and the nutritional well being of the students.

"We're interested in providing canteen managers with the support they need to help set their pricing" in a way that could sway children towards the healthier options, Dr Wyse said.

"It's all about making the healthy choice the easy choice," she said. "Pricing is a really simple way of doing that and we have the potential to explore this."

Complicating matters, a smattering of foods classified as green - including Milo - have come under fire from consumer and public health groups, accused of gaming the federal government's health star rating system.

Milo boasts a 4.5 star health rating on its tin, but the product only rates highly when added to a glass of skin milk. On its own Milo - which contains 46.4 grams of sugar per 100 grams - is rated 1.5 stars