Penguins like to eat anchovies. And herring and small crustaceans. In the wild, they will spend several hours a day hunting. In captivity, their diet must be carefully monitored. London Zoo takes good care of its penguins. The Humboldt enclosure at the Zoo has been created to reflect the penguins’ natural environment – a rocky South American beachscape. The penguins are fed on fresh fish every day – their beachscape is not riddled with ultra-processed, high-sugar, low-nutrition ‘penguin treats’ that potentially undermine their health.

Children visiting London Zoo don’t have such an easy time of it – their environment is replete with ultra-processed, high-sugar, low-nutrition ‘treats’. There are doughnuts and muffins, cookies and candy-floss. Snack kiosks sell Pepsi at a cheaper price than water. Stickers positioned at child height promote Twix, Mars, Galaxy, and Milky Way. ZSL own-brand sweets are stacked on low shelves for small hands to grab. Ice-cream is offered at every turn (a child visiting the Zoo is rarely ever more than 100 metres from an ice-cream stall). And there’s no respite at lunch – a child’s lunchbox includes up to 36 grams of sugar, 189% of a child’s daily sugar allowance.  

The Zoo is one of twenty attractions surveyed this summer by secret diners acting on behalf of the Soil Association’s Out to Lunch campaign. Out to Lunch is shining a spotlight on the food served to children and families at the UK’s most popular days out – the campaign aims to highlight the role that family attractions can play in supporting children to eat well.

At first glance, it’s not obvious that this would be a role of any great significance. Children don’t visit attractions on a daily basis. A day out at London Zoo may involve a child over-dosing of sugar, but this will, arguably, have little direct effect upon their long-term health. On our calculation, a typical day out at London Zoo could see a child consuming 132 grams of sugar, 700% of their daily sugar allowance. This is significant, but in the grand scheme of annual nutritional intake, the direct contribution of the Zoo is small, compared to food consumed at home and at school.

Taking a broader perspective, however, the Zoo’s influence may be more far-reaching.

Humans, like Humboldt penguins, evolved in a particular environment. For people, it was the African savannah, where sugary foods were rare. The Government’s 2007 Foresight report on obesity describes a “limited sensitivity to abundance” resulting from this environment – our bodies are primed to gorge on the calorific, anticipating only a rare encounter with overripe fruit or honey. In modern environments, some of which are saturated with sugar, we find that we are predisposed to over-eat. Rising levels of obesity and ill-health are the result.

It is in this context that family attractions are more influential actors. Attractions play a formative role in shaping a child’s perception of ‘treat food’, and this perception alters their response to the sugar-saturated environments they encounter on a daily basis. An idealised image of indulgence – such as is promoted by London Zoo – can shape a child’s preferences and expectations in everyday situations.As one of our secret diner parents commented: “How am I supposed to encourage the kids to eat well at home, when they’ve been led to think that the best food is always unhealthy?”

Out to Lunch is working to identify and celebrate the attractions leading by example by providing high quality, healthy treat food to children. The campaign has published an interactive online league table, profiling the food and service at 20 of Britain’s favourite days out. In the absence of any significant drivers directed at family attractions provided by government (including in the recently published Obesity Plan), Out to Lunch aims to create a ‘race to the top’ by benchmarking popular attractions against one another and highlighting excellence.

The campaign throws open the old debate over responsibility – whose job is it to ensure that a child eats healthily? Should the onus of responsibility should fall on the parents? Should the Government provide businesses with more direct incentives? These are complicated questions, but part of the answer perhaps lies with the humble Humboldt penguin, shuffling across its rocky beachscape, swimming in an extensive pool, snacking on fresh herring. It is living in an environment that is not natural, but that has nevertheless been carefully crafted to be health promoting, including through the provision of fresh whole foods suited to its biology.

If London Zoo can provide such an environment for penguins, surely it can for people too.

Find out more about the Out to Lunch campaign at:

Get involved on Twitter using #OutToLunchUK

Rob Percival is the Soil Association’s Policy Officer for food and health