Children's pre-packed lunchbox favourites should have clearer nutritional labelling to show parents the levels of salt and sugar in them, a consumer watchdog said today.
In the run-up to the start of a new school term, Which? assessed items aimed at pupils and found that adding two products to a lunchbox could provide a quarter of the recommended sugar intake, and more than half the daily salt intake, for a five-year-old.
Out of more than 1,000 parents surveyed, eight out of 10 of those who give their child a packed lunch said they included pre-packaged items.
Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which?, said: "These products might seem like handy fillers for your child's lunchbox, but they can be bad for their health and your wallet.
"You're better off making your own children's lunches or giving them school dinners which are much more nutritionally balanced."
Seven out of 10 of those surveyed said they would like to see "traffic light" labelling on food products aimed at children, with red to signify high levels of salt, sugar and fat, amber for medium and green for low.
Jenny Driscoll, senior campaigner at Which?, said many busy parents believed products were healthy if they contained fruit or calcium, without looking at the levels of sugar and salt.
"Most parents tell us they want clear labelling, especially when it comes to food for their children," she said. "There are lots of different systems used by supermarkets across the board, and this would be the most clear.
"It would allow parents to see which products have high sugar and salt, so they can be careful about how much to give to their child, perhaps giving it to them as an occasional treat."
The research found that a pack of Dairylea Lunchables Ham'n'Cheese Crackers has 1.8g salt, more than half of the recommended daily level for a five-year-old. A 200ml bottle of blackcurrant and apple Robinsons Fruit Shoot drink has 22g of sugar, which is a quarter of the maximum amount for a five to 10-year-old.
Adding those two items to a lunchbox would cost £1.86 - whereas the average school meal costs 7p more, at £1.93.
Other items assessed by Which? included a Kellogg's Coco Pops snack bar, which has 8g of sugar, and Fruit Factory Fruit Strings which have 9.6g of sugar per 20g serving.
Patricia Mucavele, senior nutritionist at the School Food Trust, said: "Making healthy packed lunches which give children the variety they need in their diet takes a lot of time and effort.
"Research consistently shows that school meals are the more nutritious option and when you look at how the prices compare, it has to be food for thought for parents wanting to give their children healthy lunches and save time and money this September."
A Britvic spokeswoman said: "The only product in our Fruit Shoot range that we recommend for the school lunchbox is Fruit Shoot My 5, which contains 80% fruit juice and counts as one of kids' five-a-day.
"It is disappointing that Which? has focused on one product as the Fruit Shoot range includes regular and low-sugar options.
"In practice, 85pc of parents opt for one of our low-sugar options, which is why we now offer so many more low-sugar flavours than our regular range. But we also know that some parents prefer to avoid low-calorie sweeteners altogether and that, on occasions, sugar provides children with some well-needed energy."
A spokesman for Kraft Foods, which makes Lunchables, said: "We clearly print nutritional information on packs to help all parents make informed choices, but we would also point out that a pack of Lunchables contains more than half of a five-to-10-year-old's daily calcium requirements, too."