An alarming dietary trajectory has been uncovered in the United States, with children and teens drawing a whopping two-thirds of their calories from ultra-processed foods, an exhaustive data analysis spanning almost twenty years reveals.
Such ultra-processed edibles, which include quick-fixes like frozen pizza, microwave meals, and store-bought snacks and desserts, are increasingly making up significant portions of juvenile diets. In fact, they accounted for a concerning 67% of caloric intake in 2018, an increase from the 61% identified in 1999, according to a newly-published study in the JAMA medical journal.
The extensive study examined the dietary habits of 33,795 children and adolescents nationwide. While industrially processed foods can maintain freshness and allow for vitamin fortification, they also alter the food's consistency, taste, and color to make it more tempting, affordable, and convenient.
“Certain whole grain breads and dairy foods are ultra-processed, and they're healthier than other ultra-processed foods,” highlighted senior author Fang Fang Zhang, a nutrition and cancer epidemiologist at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “But many ultra-processed foods are less healthy, have more sugar and salt, and fewer fibers than unprocessed and minimally processed foods. Seeing children and teenagers increasing their consumption of these ultra-processed foods is worrisome."
Through annual surveys where trained interviewers recorded children's diets over a 24-hour period, data was collected for the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The study found that between 1999 and 2018, healthier unprocessed or minimally processed foods fell from making up 28.8% to 23.5% of consumed calories.
The increases in caloric intake were most significant in ready-to-eat or heat meals like takeout food, frozen pizza, and burgers which jumped from 2.2% to 11.2% of calories. Packaged sweet snacks and desserts following closely behind, going from 10.6% to 12.9%.
The correlation between child health and ultra-processed food consumption is a complicated one; however, a recent UK-based research indicated that a child's consumption of more ultra-processed food is linked to a higher likelihood of being overweight or obese in adulthood.
Katie Meyer and Lindsey Smith Taillie, assistant professors in the department of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, Gillings School of Global Public Health, shared their concerns on the findings. They wrote, "The current food system promotes overconsumption of ultra-processed foods through price and promotions, targeted marketing, especially towards Black and Latino youths, and high availability of these products in schools.”
Interestingly, the study revealed some positive trends: the calories from sugary drinks fell from 10.8% to 5.3% of overall calories. Zhang said, "We need the same fervor and commitment when reducing the consumption of other unhealthy ultra-processed foods like cakes, cookies, doughnuts, and brownies."
Black, non-Hispanic youths saw a larger increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in their diet compared to their White counterparts. The study, however, did not evaluate trends in other racial or ethnic groups due to a lack of nationally representative data. Nevertheless, it noted that Mexican American youths consume ultra-processed foods at consistently lower rates, potentially due to more home cooking among Hispanic families.
Family income or parents' education levels showed no influence on ultra-processed food consumption, indicating these foods to be commonplace in most children's diets.
Given the broad scope of ultra-processed foods and the challenges in assessing diet accurately, this study warrants the need for improved methods of dietary assessment and classification of foods, Mayer and Taillie conclude.