- U.S. children and teens are consuming more than two-thirds or 67% of their calories from ultra-processed foods like chips, cookies, microwaveable meals and frozen pizza, according to a new study published in JAMA. The study, which looked at children ages 2 to 19 over a 20-year period, found the share of ultra-processed food rose 5.6 percentage points between 1999 and 2018.
- The majority of this increase came from ready-to-heat and -eat mixed dishes, with the overall share of calories jumping from 2.2% to 11.2%, and sweet snacks and sweets, which grew from 10.7% to 12.9%. However, consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages actually decreased from 10.8% share of calories to 5.3%.
- These findings coincide with concerns surrounding the steadily rising obesity rate among U.S. youths during the past two decades that is causing concern for both parents and the government. In addition to contributing to weight gain, processed food has also been linked to childhood allergies and health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, as well as early death.
On the one hand, the revelations from this study are not surprising as "kid food" has long conjured up images of processed and unhealthy items. In the study, researchers noted that as the proportion of ultra-processed foods in children’s diets surged, the share of calories from often healthier unprocessed or minimally processed foods decreased from 28.8% to 23.5%.
This pattern was especially notable with Black youths, whose consumption of ultra-processed products rose more than 10 points to represent 72.5% of their diets, and among Mexican American youths, where share rose more than 7 points to 63.5%. For non-Hispanic White youths, share of calories from these foods rose about 5 points to comprise 68.6% of their diets.
What is surprising is that one traditional culprit — soda — did not account for the jump in share of calories. Soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages have long been in the hot seat for their unhealthy profile. However, over the years, soda taxes and publicity campaigns have led many consumers to shift toward low- and no-sugar alternatives. For the youths in this study, the results of years of effort to curtail soda consumption are evident. Share of calories from these beverages was more than halved.
But it may not just be consumption patterns for sugar-sweetened beverages that are changing. Parents are learning to be more vigilant about what their children are choosing to eat. A study by Amplify Snack Brands and the Center for Generational Kinetics found that 55% of millennial moms said their kids are more likely to choose better-for-you snacks. And manufacturers have responded: From healthier versions of classic snacks to clean-label products made with natural flavors and colors, the list of better-for-you options has grown dramatically over the past two decades.
Nevertheless, ready-to-eat and heat meals, which contributed much of the increase in children's calories from ultra-processed foods, remain a wide-open opportunity for providing healthier, minimally processed options. Already, there are options on the market making a better-for-you play such as Green Giant's cauliflower and veggie tots and Oh Yes! Foods frozen pizzas, which contain 12 fruits and vegetables in the crust and sauce, but there are other product categories from chicken nuggets to taquitos that are ripe for a makeover.
While processed foods are still prevalent, manufacturers are working to change the concept of “kid food.” And since this study's data collection ended in 2018, other research has indicated that consumers are trying to make better food choices overall. A Nielsen report found that from 2018 to 2019, sales of fresh foods were up $4.6 billion, while organic sales increased more than $925 million and plant-based foods rose $982 million.
More recently, the pandemic accelerated this focus on nutrition. According to a recent study from the International Food Information Council, 31% of parents said their child's nutrition improved somewhat or greatly during the pandemic thanks to a renewed focus on healthier eating, making more meals at home, and being able to monitor their eating habits. With more attention being given to what kids eat and an overall shift toward healthier food choices, there is a chance that the ultra-processed trend could change as well.