In 2018, ultraprocessed foods contributed an alarming 67 percent of the total caloric intake of young people in the US, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Given that the consumption of highly processed foods has been linked to obesity, diabetes and other health issues, the study authors say their findings provide cause for consternation and are calling for greater nutritional guidance.
“[M]any ultraprocessed 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,” explained lead author Fang Fang Zhang in a statement.
The researchers analyzed the dietary intake of 33,795 children and adolescents over a period of two decades, and found that the proportion of calories that kids obtained from ultraprocessed foods increased by 5.6 percent between 1999 and 2018. This increase was largely driven by ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat dishes such as frozen pizzas and hamburgers, which provided just 2.2 percent of kids’ energy intake at the end of the last century but contributed 11.2 percent two decades later.
Meanwhile, the amount of dietary energy obtained from unprocessed or minimally processed foods fell from 28.8 percent to 23.5 percent.
Calories ingested via the consumption of sweets such as bakery goods and other sugary snacks increased from 10.7 percent to 12.9 percent over the same period, although the proportion of dietary calories obtained from sugary drinks fell significantly, from 10.8 percent to 5.3 percent.
“This finding shows the benefits of the concerted campaign over the past few years to reduce overall consumption of sugary drinks,” said Zhang. “We need to mobilize the same energy and level of commitment when it comes to other unhealthy ultraprocessed foods such as cakes, cookies, doughnuts and brownies.”
Breaking the data down, the researchers found that the increase in consumption of highly processed foods was greatest among non-Hispanic Black youths, followed by Mexican Americans. The jump in the proportion of calories obtained from such foods rose by 10.3 percent and 7.6 percent among these two groups, respectively. In contrast, the relative caloric contribution of such foods to the diets of non-Hispanic white children increased by just 5.2 percent over the two-decade study period.
“Targeted marketing of junk foods toward racial/ethnic minority youths may partly contribute to such differences,” write the study authors.
Surprisingly, the researchers also discovered that family income and parental education appear to have no impact on the amount of highly processed foods consumed by kids. Such a finding, they say, “suggests that ultraprocessed foods are pervasive in the diet of US youths and supports the need to reduce consumption of ultraprocessed foods among all population subgroups.”