Ultra-processed foods make up majority of children’s diets

The study published earlier this week in JAMA​, analyzed the diets of 33,795 children and adolescents nationwide from 1999 to 2018, based on National Health and Nutrition Examinations Surveys (NHANES) data.

Researchers defined ultra-processed foods as “industrially produced and contain ingredients that will rarely be included in culinary preparations” ​and typically contain added sugars, hydrogenated oils, and flavor enhancers. 

Acknowledging the sliding nutrition scale of ultra-processed foods, senior and corresponding author Dr. Fang Fang Zhang, nutrition epidemiologist at the Friedman School, said: “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.”

Researchers saw the largest spike in calories consumed came from ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat dishes (e.g. takeout, frozen, pizza, burgers), which jumped from 2.2% of calories consumed in 1999 to 11.2% in 2018. The second largest spike in calories came from packaged sweet snacks and desserts, the consumption of which grew from 10.6% to 12.9%.

The estimated percentage of calories consumed from sugar-sweetened beverages, however, decreased from 10.8% to 5.3%, a 51% drop.

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