US youngsters get the vast majority of their energy from extremely processed junk meals: NPR
Researchers found that 67% of the calories consumed by children and teenagers in the US came from highly processed foods in 2018, up from 61% in 1999. The statewide study analyzed the diets of 33,795 children and teenagers. Drazen Stader / EyeEm / Getty Images / EyeEm Hide caption
Drazen Stader / EyeEm / Getty Images / EyeEm
Drazen Stader / EyeEm / Getty Images / EyeEm
Children and teenagers in the United States get the majority of their calories from highly processed foods like frozen pizza, microwaveable meals, chips and biscuits, a new study found.
Two-thirds – or 67% – of the calories kids and teens consumed in 2018 came from highly processed foods, up from 61% in 1999, according to a peer-reviewed study published in the medical journal JAMA. The study, which analyzed the diets of 33,795 adolescents ages 2-19 in the United States, found the “generally poorer nutritional profile” of highly processed foods.
“This is of particular concern for children and adolescents as they are at a critical stage in life to develop eating habits that can last into adulthood,” said Fang Fang Zhang, lead author of the study and nutrition and cancer epidemiologist at Friedman School of Nutrition from Tuft University Science and Policy. “A diet with a high proportion of highly processed foods can negatively affect the nutritional quality of children and contribute to negative health consequences in the long term.”
One reason for the increase could be the convenience of highly processed foods, says Zhang. Industrial processing, such as changing the physical structure and chemical composition of foods, gives them not only a longer shelf life, but also a more appetizing taste.
“Things like sugar, corn syrup, some hemp oil and other ingredients that we don’t normally use in our kitchen that are extracted from food and synthesized in the laboratory are added to the end product of ultra-processed foods,” Zhang said can be made very tasty. So kids are going to like these foods that are kind of hard to resist. “
Over the same two-decade period that the study data was collected, consumption of unprocessed or minimally processed foods fell from 28.8% to 23.5%, according to the study.
The largest increase in calories was found in ready meals or ready meals such as pizza, sandwiches and hamburgers, which rose from 2.2% to 11.2% of the calories. Packaged sweet snacks and treats like cake and ice cream ranked second, accounting for 12.9% of calorie consumption in 2018, compared to 10.6% in 1999.
When broken down by race and ethnicity, the growth in highly processed food consumption among black, non-Hispanic youth was significantly higher than that of white, non-Hispanic youth. The study also found that Mexican-American adolescents consumed ultra-processed foods at a persistently lower rate, which the researchers believe could indicate more home-style cooking among Hispanic families.
The study also found that parental education levels or family income did not affect consumption of highly processed foods, suggesting that this type of food is common in many households.
But responsibility for dealing with this problem shouldn’t just lie with parents, says Zhang.
While she would encourage parents and children to “replace highly processed foods with minimally processed and unprocessed foods,” Zhang says policy changes are needed “to have a broader and more sustainable impact.”
Take soda consumption, for example. The consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages decreased from 10.8% of total calories to 5.3%. The study’s researchers noted that the decline could be related to measures like soda taxes and raising awareness of the effects of sugar on young people’s health.
“We may have won this battle, at least in part, for some sugary drinks,” says Zhang, “but we haven’t yet against highly processed foods.”
This widespread dependence on junk food is a growing public health problem as the obesity rate among US teenagers has steadily risen over the past two decades.
While the study’s authors said the relationship between childhood obesity and highly processed foods is complex, they acknowledge that “cohort studies provide consistent evidence that high intake of highly processed foods contributes to obesity in children and young adults”.
In fact, a 2019 study by researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that a diet high in processed foods encourages people to overeat and gain weight compared to a diet consisting of whole or minimally processed foods.