For a country that has the best food supply in the world, it’s a sad statement to make: our children’s diets are getting worse. Ultra-processed foods now account for two-thirds of the calories that children consume, according to a newly published study.
A processed food is any food that has experienced a change before it’s sold including canning, drying, smoking or pasteurizing. Food processing can be beneficial because it helps to ensure food safety and food security.
On the other hand, ultra-processed foods are further processed with added sugar, artificial coloring or flavoring, or preservatives. They end up being industrial formulations that contain little or no whole food ingredients. They are sold as ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat-and-serve foods, such as frozen pizza and microwaveable meals. They are mostly devoid of any valuable nutrition.
Using information gathered from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University looked at trends in the consumption of ultra-processed foods among children between the ages of two and 19 in the U.S. Ten consecutive cycles of NHANES (1999 to 2018) data were analyzed. The average age of the nearly 34,000 boys and girls in the study was 10.7 years.
Before you fill your cupboards and freezer with easy-to-serve processed foods, think about the kind of example you are setting for your children.
Information was collected using dietary recalls obtained from the parents of younger children and from older children themselves.
Consumption of ultra-processed foods that were ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat went up nine percent and accounted for 11 percent of calories consumed. Packaged sweet snacks and desserts had the second largest increase, accounting for 13 percent of calories consumed.
Calories consumed from healthier, minimally processed or unprocessed foods dropped by five percent. The remaining calories came from foods that were moderately processed, such as cheese, canned fruits and vegetables, and flavor enhancers added by consumers like sugar and butter.
Overall, the consumption of calories from ultra-processed foods increased six percent among kids and teens over the 10 years of the study, bringing the total percentage of calories consumed from ultra-processed foods to 67 percent, two-thirds of their daily calories. The results help explain why the obesity rate among U.S. children stands at 20 percent, and diabetes and high blood pressure are being diagnosed at increasingly early ages.
When consumed in excess, ultra-processed foods like sugary breakfast cereals, French fries, fast food, some lunch meats and sweet snacks are associated with medical conditions like obesity and diabetes, and some forms of cancer. They contain little or no dietary fiber.
Ultra-processed foods are processed with added sugar, artificial coloring or flavoring, or preservatives. They end up being industrial formulations that contain little or no whole food ingredients.
One bit of good news that came out of the study was that number of calories from sugary beverages dropped by half, demonstrating the success of a campaign to decrease consumption of sugary drinks by children and teens.
It appears that convenience has taken precedence over health when it comes to feeding our children. As a busy parent or caregiver, you may be tempted to rely too much on the quick and easy way to feed your kids — and kids’ own preferences for ultra-processed foods that are designed to be tasty — instead of providing foods that are best for their health. Children form food habits that will likely follow them into adulthood. Before you fill your cupboards and freezer with easy-to-serve processed foods, think about the kind of example you are setting for your children.
This study should serve as a reminder that it is the responsibility of parents and caregivers to provide good nutrition to growing kids rather than just putting something in their stomachs to fill the void.
The study is published in JAMA.