Kids are eating more processed foods than ever, study says

Baystateparent Magazine
Children are getting the bulk of their calories from "ultra-processed" foods, a new study says.

American kids are getting the majority of their calories from highly-processed foods -- more than ever before -- a new study finds.

Ultra-processed foods made up two-thirds of the calories consumed by children and adolescents in 2018, according to a Tufts University study published in the medical journal JAMA.

The term "processed" simply means changing food from its original state. Chopping fruit, grinding wheat into flour, or freezing fresh peas are all considered forms of processing. But researchers worry about a diet high in "ultra-processed" foods, which might be harmful to health. These 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 lunchmeats such as bologna and salami. 

When consumed in excess, ultra-processed foods are linked with diabetes, obesity, and other serious medical conditions, such as certain cancers.

“Processing can keep food fresher longer, allows for food fortification and enrichment, and enhances consumer convenience," said senior and corresponding author Fang Fang Zhang, nutrition epidemiologist. "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."

Researchers found the largest spike in calories came from ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat dishes such as takeout and frozen pizza and burgers. The second largest spike in calories came from packaged sweet snacks and desserts.

Over the study period, calories from often healthier unprocessed or minimally processed foods decreased. The remaining percentage of calories came from moderately processed foods such as cheese and canned fruits and vegetables, and consumer-added flavor enhancers such as sugar, honey, maple syrup, and butter.

But there was good news too: Calories from sugar-sweetened beverages dropped from 10.8% to 5.3% of overall calories, a 51% drop.

"This finding shows the benefits of the concerted campaign over the past few years to reduce overall consumption of sugary drinks," said Zhang. Researchers hope to see the same energy when it comes to other unhealthy ultra-processed foods such as cakes, cookies, doughnuts and brownies.

"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," said Zhang.