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The Five Worst Packaged Lunchbox Meals: Findings

A Report from PCRM's Cancer Project
Spring 2009

Findings | Key Factors | Rating System/Detailed Results | References

As American families juggle busy schedules and rising food costs, a growing number of parents are sending children off to school with packaged lunchbox meals. Although Oscar Mayer’s Lunchables and similar packaged lunches seem like cheap and convenient options, many pack a hidden cost. These products are often high in fat and cholesterol and contain processed meats, high-fat dairy products, and other unhealthful items that contribute to childhood obesity and raise the risk of chronic diseases later in life. To determine which products pose the greatest danger to children’s health, dietitians with the Cancer Project analyzed packaged lunchbox meals made by five major companies.

Findings

Cancer Project dietitians found that most popular packaged lunchbox meals are high in fat, saturated fat, calories, and sodium and contain little or no fiber or healthful fruits and vegetables. Many also contain processed meats, which are linked to increased colorectal-cancer risk. The five most unhealthful lunchbox meals are ranked from worst to least bad.

The Five Worst Packaged Lunchbox Meals

Rank Meal

Manufacturer

1 Lunchables Maxed Out Cracker Stackers: Cracker Combo Ham and Cheddar Oscar Mayer
2 Lunchables Maxed Out Cracker Stackers: Cracker Combo Turkey and Cheddar Oscar Mayer
3 LunchBoxers: Pizza Norwegian Jake’s
4 LunchMakers Fun Kits: Bologna Cracker Crunchers Armour-Eckrich
5 Lunchables Nachos Cheese Dip and Salsa Oscar Mayer

Background

Packaged lunchbox meals are a multimillion-dollar industry. Oscar Mayer, a subsidiary of Kraft Foods, has 43 types of Lunchables, which command 85 percent of the $750-million market.1 Most of these meals are high in fat and cholesterol and contain no fruits or vegetables. A Lunchables Web site says the company’s mission is to “nutritionally improve every product in the Lunchables product line.” But just eight of the 43 Lunchables are deemed “Sensible Solutions” or “better-for-you foods” by Kraft Foods. In 2007, Kraft Foods launched Lunchables Jr., designed for 3- to 5-year-olds.2

Lunchables are not alone in this market. Cancer Project dietitians also reviewed Armour-Eckrich’s 13 types of LunchMakers, many of which include cancer-promoting processed meat; Norwegian Jake’s six LunchBoxers, which include artery-clogging chicken and processed meats; Kraft Foods’ Easy Mac; and Smucker’s Uncrustables.

High-fat foods like these have contributed to America’s childhood obesity epidemic. The prevalence of overweight in children ages 6 to 19 has tripled over the past two decades.3 Childhood obesity sets the stage for the development of chronic diseases. One recent study found that obese children as young as 10 have the arteries of an average 45-year-old.4 As young people consume more high-fat foods, such as packaged lunchbox meals, they increase their long-term risk of heart disease,5 diabetes,6 and some types of cancer.7,8,9 One in three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in his or her life, according to federal health experts.10

Review Process

In March 2009, dietitians with the Cancer Project reviewed nutritional information for nearly 60 packaged lunchbox meals made by five companies: Armour-Eckrich, Kraft Foods, Norwegian Jake’s, Oscar Mayer (a subsidiary of Kraft), and Smucker’s. Dietitians obtained nutritional information by reviewing product packaging and company Web sites.

Dietitians evaluated each lunchbox meal based on key nutritional data, including the item’s total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, calories, sodium, sugar, and fiber. Ratings are also based on carcinogenic criteria, including the presence of processed meat, which can increase the risk of colorectal cancer, and cheese and other high-fat dairy products, which appear to play an important role in cancer risk.

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