Stuffing Chips - © Michael Moss - Salt Sugar Fat Book

Ultra-Processed Snacks, Foods Dominate Kids’ Diets

We’ve heard a lot about processed foods and how bad they are for our health. Now a respected U.S. University has revealed the results of a survey that show ultra-processed foods comprise more than two-thirds of the calories in most kids’ diets. That’s bad for their weight and their heart health…

Kids Eat Fatty Food - © irishnews.comThe percentage of calories in kids’ diets coming from ‘ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat
dishes such as takeout and frozen pizza and burgers’ rose over the span of the
the survey from 2.2 percent to 11.2 percent. That’s part of the bad news…

Processed foods have been getting a well-deserved bad wrap for a few years, now. But folks continue to consume them. Ultra-processed foods now compromise the majority of commercially made, packaged foods in the developed world. And a new study by researchers at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy has revealed that ultra-processed foods provide more than 2/3 of the calories in the average child’s diet.

What they did

The study set out to profile trends in the consumption of ultra-processed foods among U.S. children and young adults aged 2 to 19. Researchers processed data from 10 consecutive cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 1999 to 2018. The average age of survey participants was 10.7 years, and the sample was roughly equally divided between boys and girls.

The study report relied on this comprehensive definition of ‘ultra-processed’ foods:

“Ultra-processed foods are ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat items often high in added sugar, sodium, and carbohydrates, and low in fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. They typically contain added sugars, hydrogenated oils, and flavor enhancers. Examples include packaged sweet snacks and desserts, sugary breakfast cereals, French fries, fast food burgers, and some lunch meats such as bologna and salami. When consumed in excess, these foods are linked with diabetes, obesity, and other serious medical conditions, such as certain cancers.”

What they found

Ultra-processed foods can constitute a double-edged dietary sword, according to study senior and corresponding author Fang Fang Zhang:

“Some whole grain breads and dairy foods are ultra-processed, and they’re healthier than other ultra-processed foods. Processing can keep food fresher longer, allows for food fortification and enrichment, and enhances consumer convenience. But many ultra-processed foods are less healthy, with more sugar and salt, and less fiber, than unprocessed and minimally processed foods, and the increase in their consumption by children and teenagers is concerning.”

Nevertheless, the percentage of calories in kids’ diets coming from ‘ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat dishes as takeout and frozen pizza and burgers’ rose over the span of the survey from 2.2 percent to 11.2 percent. And the calorie contribution from sweet snacks and desserts grew from 10.6 percent to 12.9 percent. At the same time, calories from ‘often healthier unprocessed or minimally processed foods’ declined from 28.8 percent to 23.5 percent.

On the up side, calories from sugar-sweetened beverages dropped 51 percent, from 10.8 percent to 5.3 percent of overall calories. That’s probably because sugar-sweetened beverages have been in the forefront of efforts over the past few years to reduce the amount of sugar in both kids’ and adults’ diets. Sugary drinks have been universally implicated as the single most serious contributor to the global obesity epidemic.

The takeaway

“Food processing is an often-overlooked dimension in nutrition research. We may need to consider that ultra-processing of some foods may be associated with health risks, independent of the poor nutrient profile of ultra-processed foods generally,” Zhang observes.

Of the decline in calories coming from sugary beverages, Zhang notes: “This finding shows the benefits of the concerted campaign over the past few years to reduce overall consumption of sugary drinks. We need to mobilize the same energy and level of commitment when it comes to other unhealthy ultra-processed foods such as cakes, cookies, doughnuts and brownies.”

My take

I share Dr. Zhang’s optimism about the example set by the recent decline in the level of Calories contributed to the average young person’s diet by sugary beverages. And I applaud his recommendation to go after the other major Calorie offenders – snacks and desserts. But I wonder if the average person will heed his advice or just go on eating what they crave, and what’s most convenient – and least healthy for them.

Human nature being what it is, I suspect it will take substantial financial and material commitments from health promotion organizations and governments to make further inroads on the ultra-processed food problem.

Meanwhile, the adults and leaders of tomorrow are eating more and more bad stuff every day, supporting and enhancing the hold that ultra-processed foods have achieved over the past 20 years on the lives of everyone in the developed world…

~ Maggie J.