Paying attention to what your children eat is important. What we choose to put into our bodies has a profound impact on our health and wellbeing. Recently, scientists have found that nearly two-thirds of the calories consumed by children came from foods like pre-packaged snacks or frozen meals. These are called ultra-processed junk foods.
While no parent wants their children to eat unhealthy foods, the rise in popularity of ultra-processed junk foods has skyrocketed. This can make it especially difficult for parents to find healthier alternatives to certain foods.
Below is everything you need to know about ultra-processed foods, as well as how you can avoid them.
What are Ultra-Processed Junk Foods?
Unprocessed or minimally processed foods are foods in which the nutrients and vitamins are largely intact. Foods such as these are often in their natural state and are typically only altered in ways such as freezing, drying, boiling, or pasteurization to make them safe for storage and consumption.
When foods are processed beyond these simple measures, they change from their natural state. The term ultra-processed is typically used to describe foods that are ready-to-go or ready to heat. These foods are often high in added sugar, hydrogenated oils, sodium, and carbohydrates and low in fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Ultra-processed foods are made mostly from substances that have been extracted from foods, and as a result, typically contain artificial ingredients and preservatives.
When consumed in excess, ultra-processed junk foods have been linked to higher levels of obesity, diabetes, and other serious health conditions such as certain cancers.
One study conducted on over 100,000 French adults over five years found that those who consumed more ultra-processed foods had higher risks of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease.
Common Types of Ultra-Processed Junk Foods
Ultra-processed foods can come in a variety of different products. Most often, these types of foods will be pre-packaged and contain high amounts of sugars or flavor enhancers.
Some common types of ultra-processed foods include:
- Packaged sweet snacks and desserts
- Soft drinks
- Sugary breakfast cereals
- Packaged soups
- Fast foods
- Potato chips
- French fries
- Pre-packaged lunch meats like salami or bologna
A Rise in Ultra-Processed Foods in Children’s Diets
According to scientists from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University, the level of total calories consumed from ultra-processed foods jumped from 61% to 67% from 1999 to 2018. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), analyzed dietary intake from 33,795 children and adolescents nationwide.
The largest reported spike in calories came from foods such as ready-to-eat frozen meals, frozen pizzas, and fast food burgers, which jumped from 2.2% of total calories to 11.2%. The second-largest increase in calories from ultra-processed foods were packaged sweets and desserts, which accounted for nearly 13% of total calories.
Throughout the study, scientists found that the number of calories consumed from healthier, less processed foods decreased from 28.8% to 23.5%. The overall remaining calories came from foods such as cheeses, fruits, vegetables, added sugars, or other artificial sweeteners.
“The lack of disparities based on parental education and family income indicates that ultra-processed foods are pervasive in children’s diets,”
The group also found that the number of calories from sugar-sweetened beverages like soft drinks and other carbonated beverages dropped from 10.8% to 5.3%—a 51% decrease.
Another important finding by the group was the fact that there were no statistically significant differences between parental education and income. “The lack of disparities based on parental education and family income indicates that ultra-processed foods are pervasive in children’s diets,” said Fang Fang Zhang the study’s corresponding author and nutrition epidemiologist at the Friedman School. “This finding supports the need for researchers to track trends in food consumption more fully, taking into account consumption of ultra-processed foods.”
How to Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods
Avoiding ultra-processed foods can be difficult. Today, foods are manufactured to have longer shelf lives and cheaper price tags. Sadly, this means that the nutritional value is often the first thing to be sacrificed. However, certain processing methods are necessary, and as a result, are considered to be healthier alternatives to ultra-processed foods.
“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,” said Zhang“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.”
So, how can you avoid ultra-processed foods? One simple solution is to cook more often. Recent decades have seen a steep decline in the number of meals cooked at home, which has given rise to ultra-processed foods such as frozen family dinners. By cooking meals at home, you can greatly reduce the number of junk foods your children eat, while simultaneously promoting healthy family bonding.
Another great way to cut back on ultra-processed foods is to pay attention to nutrition labels. Due to how many processed foods market themselves, they can often label themselves “healthy,” “natural,” or “organic” when, in fact, they are not. This is because labels such as “organic” describe the original ingredients, not the process of how the food is made. In short, an “all-natural” chocolate bar is still ultra-processed food.
Healthier Alternatives to Processed Foods
When trying to avoid processed foods, think of things like fruits and vegetables, or foods that require very little processing. Some unprocessed or minimally processed foods to include in your child’s diet include:
Bottom Line on Processed Junk Foods
Eating healthy isn’t always easy, especially when you’re planning meals for your kids. Most foods today are made with the sole purpose of being quick and easy meals. This can make finding healthy, unprocessed foods difficult. However, there are a number of things you can do to ensure that your child is eating healthy.
Make sure to read nutrition labels, cut back on pre-packaged foods, and eat in more often. Be sure to keep in mind where your food comes from. Eating fresh, unprocessed, food can reduce your risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke. Avoiding ultra-processed junk foods can be tough, but cutting back even the slightest can greatly improve your child’s health.