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A new study finds that children and teens in the United States get the majority of their calories from ultra-processed foods such as frozen pizza, microwaveable meals, chips and crackers.
Two-thirds — or 67% — of calories consumed by children and teens in 2018 came from ultra-processed foods, a jump from 61% in 1999, according to a peer-reviewed study. Published in the medical journal JAMA. The research, which analyzed the diets of 33,795 young adults between the ages of 2 and 19 across the United States, pointed to the “poorer overall nutrient profile” of ultra-processed foods.
“This is particularly concerning for children and adolescents because they are at a critical stage in their lives to form eating habits that can continue into adulthood,” he says. Fang Fang Zhang, lead author of the study and a nutrition and cancer epidemiologist at Tuft University’s Friedman School of Nutritional Science and Policy. “A diet rich in ultra-processed foods may negatively affect children’s diet quality and contribute to adverse health outcomes in the long term.”
Zhang says one reason for the increase may be the suitability of ultra-processed foods. Industrial processing, such as changing the physical and chemical composition of foods, not only gives them a longer shelf life, but also gives them a more delicious taste.
“Things like sugar, corn syrup, some hemp oil, and other ingredients that we don’t usually use in our kitchen, that are extracted from foods and made in a lab, are added in the final product of ultra-processed foods,” Chang said. “The purpose of doing that is to make them highly palatable. So kids will love those foods that somehow make it hard to resist.”
The study found that during the same two-decade period when the study data were collected, consumption of unprocessed or minimally processed foods decreased to 23.5% from 28.8%.
The largest increase in calories came from ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat meals like pizza, sandwiches and hamburgers, rising to 11.2% of calories from 2.2%. Packaged sweet snacks and treats like cake and ice cream took second place, accounting for 12.9% of calorie consumption in 2018, compared to 10.6% in 1999.
When broken down by race and ethnicity, growth in ultra-processed food consumption was significantly higher for black and non-Hispanic youth, compared to white, non-Hispanic youth. The study also indicated that young Mexican Americans were consuming ultra-processed foods at a consistently low rate, which the researchers said may indicate more home cooking by Hispanic families.
The study also found that parental education levels or family income did not affect the consumption of ultra-processed foods, indicating that these types of foods are common in many families.
Chang says the responsibility to tackle this problem shouldn’t rest solely with the parents.
While it will encourage parents and children to consider “replacing ultra-processed foods with fewer, unprocessed foods,” Chang says policy-level changes are necessary “to achieve a broader, more sustainable impact.”
Take, for example, soda consumption. Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages decreased to 5.3% from 10.8% of total calories. The study researchers note that the decline could be related to efforts such as Soda taxes and raising awareness about the effects of sugar on youth health.
“We may have won this battle, at least in part for some sugary drinks, but we haven’t yet battled ultra-processed foods,” Zhang says.
This widespread reliance on fast food is a growing public health concern, as the rate of obesity has been steadily rising among young adults in the United States over the past two decades.
While the study authors said the relationship between childhood obesity and ultra-processed foods is complex, they acknowledge that “crowded studies provide consistent evidence to suggest that high intakes of ultra-processed foods contribute to obesity in children and young adults.”
In fact, a Study 2019 Researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that the diet is full of ultra-processed foods Encourages people to overeat and gain weightCompared to diets consisting of whole foods or minimally processed foods.