Obesity has been an issue around the world for many years now. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), since 1975, worldwide obesity has almost tripled. By 2016, over 340 million children and adolescents between the ages of five and nineteen were classified as being overweight or obese.
Much of the evidence linking the rise in obesity and excessive calorie consumption, particularly among teens and kids, has been attributed to the increased consumption of ultra-processed foods.
According to Harvard Medical School, ultra-processed foods are those manufactured mainly from other foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats, as well as also containing additives like artificial colors and flavors or stabilizers. The most common examples of ultra-processed foods are typically “ready-to-eat” foods such as fast food, packaged cookies and cakes, soft drinks, and frozen meals.
However, despite the links between obesity and ultra-processed foods, not much data has been gathered until recently on trends of ultra-processed food consumption among kids and teens.
This lack of data on trends led a group of researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University in Boston to undertake a study of this area. Their findings were published in JAMA in August 2021.
The team used data drawn from the annual National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 1999 to 2018 to examine the amount of ultra-processed foods consumed by children and adolescents between the ages of two and nineteen. Their definition of what constituted an ultra-processed food followed the classification given by NOVA, an established food classification system developed by researchers at the University of Sao Paulo.
The results showed a 5.6% increase in the amount of ultra-processed food consumed by kids and teens, rising from 61.4% in 1999 to 67% in 2008. In the same period, the study also showed a decline by a similar percentage in the consumption of non or minimally processed foods from 28.8% to 23.5%.
There were few surprises as to where the increase in consumption was being found. The study indicated that children and adolescents were increasingly getting their daily calorie intake from ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat dishes such as frozen burgers and pizzas and takeout. The numbers for these foods jumped from 2.2% of their calorie intake in 1999 to 11.2% by 2018. Similarly, packaged sweet snacks and dessert consumption jumped from 10.6% to 12.9%.
The study did not, however, show any significant differences in consumption levels based on socio-economic factors such as parental education or family income. This was despite the rates rising at a higher rate among non-Hispanic Blacks (10.3%) and Mexican Americans (7.6%), traditionally considered lower socio-economic groups, than among non-Hispanic Whites (5.2%).
One positive statistic that the study highlighted was the decrease in the amount of sugar-sweetened drinks that kids and teens consumed which went from 10.8% in 1999 down to 5.3% in 2018.
Fang Fang Zhang, a nutrition epidemiologist at the Friedmann School and the senior and corresponding author of the study, believes this drop can be attributed to the recent campaigns to reduce the amount of sugar-sweetened drinks being consumed in the U.S. and may hint at the way forward in lowering the consumption of all ultra-processed foods.
“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 ultra-processed foods such as cakes, cookies, doughnuts, and brownies.”
Written by Chaim Ford