Kids Are Eating More Processed Foods Than Ever Before, Study Says

"Ultra-Processed" foods are easy (and tasty!)—but too much may be harmful to health. Here's what parents need to know.

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Kids are getting the majority of their calories from highly-processed foods—more than ever before, says a new study published in JAMA. Researchers say a diet high in these "ultra-processed" foods might be harmful to health.

According to data from more than 30,000 kids ages 2-17, their total daily calories from ultra-processed foods jumped in the last two decades to 67 percent. The amount of unprocessed and minimally processed foods (like fruits and vegetables) dropped significantly. (The only good news: Consumption of sugary drinks went down too.)

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What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

The term "processed" simply means something that changes food from its original state. Chopping apples, grinding wheat into flour, or freezing fresh peas are all considered forms of processing.

What's more helpful is to think about how much foods have been processed. So researchers developed a system called NOVA that classifies foods based on the degree of processing.

At one end of the spectrum: unprocessed or minimally processed foods, which haven't been changed (or changed much) from their original state and don't have anything added to them. That includes whole grains, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, plain yogurt, unprocessed meat and poultry, eggs, fish, nuts, dry beans, or any recipe you've made at home with unprocessed ingredients.

At the other end are ultra-processed foods, which are ready-to-eat packaged foods that have man-made additives like synthetic dyes, artificial sweeteners, and emulsifiers. These are things like soda, donuts, candy, frozen pizza, chips and crackers, fast food, and boxed cereals that contain coloring and flavoring.

The ultra-processed foods that kids tend to eat the most are grain products like cereal, baked goods like cookies and donuts, sweet snacks like candy and ice cream, and convenience foods like pizza and fast food burgers.

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What's Wrong With Ultra-Processed Foods?

Eating more ultra-processed foods has been associated with poorer health in both kids and adults. In kids, a diet high in ultra-processed foods is linked to obesity and risk factors like high blood pressure and insulin resistance. In adults, it's associated with a boosted risk for heart disease and certain kinds of cancers.

There are some possible reasons for this. First, ultra-processed foods tend to be low in important nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals but high in added sugar, sodium, and trans fats. So kids (and grown-ups) who take in a lot of these foods may not be getting the nutrition they need—and they're getting ingredients (like sodium and trans fats) that, in excess amounts, have been implicated in health conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

These foods also contain additives like emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, and stabilizers. Though these ingredients are considered safe by the FDA, some research in animals has shown negative effects on gut bacteria, the kind that can lead to inflammation and other health issues.

What To Do About Ultra-Processed Foods

These kinds of foods are everywhere—and they taste good! After all, the point of ultra-processing is to create something that looks and tastes delicious. Researchers say these foods also tend to be packaged attractively and marketed intensively. Plus, they're convenient, so busy families rely on them.

As a dietitian-mom, I stock some of these foods in my house too, like store-bought bread, sweetened yogurt, tortillas, and chocolate milk. We also occasionally have things like ice cream and donuts. So I'd never recommend trying to rid your home of all processed foods—that's virtually impossible. Instead, here are a few things you can do:

Cook more often. Researchers found that families that have more home-cooked meals together tend to eat fewer ultra-processed foods.

Read ingredient lists. Less processed foods have fewer additives such as preservatives, flavors, and colors. "Looking for shorter ingredient lists could be an effective way to reduce ultra-processed foods," says researcher Fang Fang Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University.

Make it count. There's nothing wrong with foods like cookies and frozen pizza sometimes, but try to focus on processed foods that pack more nutrition, like yogurt and whole grain bread.

Serve fruits and veggies. Offering fruits and vegetables at most meals and snacks can help ensure that your kids are getting unprocessed foods every day—naturally leaving less room for ultra-processed ones.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and Parents advisor. She is the author of the blog Real Mom Nutrition and the book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids.

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