Kids and teens in the U.S. get the majority of their calories from ultra-processed foods like frozen pizza, microwavable meals, chips and cookies, a new study has found.
Two-thirds — or 67% — of calories consumed by children and adolescents in 2018 came from ultra-processed foods, a jump from 61% in 1999, according to a peer-reviewed study published in the medical journal JAMA. The research, which analyzed the diets of 33,795 youths age 2 to 19 across the U.S., noted the "overall poorer nutrient profile" of the ultra-processed foods.
"This is particularly worrisome for children and adolescents because they are at a critical life stage to form dietary habits that can persist into adulthood," says Fang Fang Zhang, the study's senior author and a nutrition and cancer epidemiologist at Tuft University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and policy. "A diet high in ultra-processed foods may negatively influence children's dietary quality and contribute to adverse health outcomes in the long term."
One reason for the increase may be the convenience of ultra-processed foods, Zhang says. Industrial processing, such as changing the physical structure and chemical composition of foods, not only gives them a longer shelf life but also a more appetizing taste.
"Things like sugar, corn syrup, some hemp oil and other ingredients that we usually don't usually use in our kitchen, that are extracted from foods and synthesized in the laboratory, those are being added in the final product of ultra-processed foods," Zhang said. "A purpose of doing this is to make them highly palatable. So kids will like those foods that somehow make it hard to resist."