New research indicates that kids, children and teenagers (ages 2 to 19), are getting nearly 70% of their calories from ultra-processed foods. That is up considerably from 20 years ago. The childhood obesity rate has also been steadily increasing over the last 2 decades. Several studies have found direct correlations between increased consumption of highly processed foods and prevalence of obesity, which sets the stage for multiple types of chronic disease.
Changes by subcategory include an increase from 2.2% to 11.2% in consumption of ready-to-heat and –eat mixed meals, an increase from 10.7% to 12.9% in consumption of sweets and sweet snacks, and a decrease from 10.8% to 5.3% in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. While the decrease in sugar-sweetened beverages may seem like a “win”, many low-calorie or zero calorie beverages replace sugar with toxic additives making them no healthier than sugar-sweetened beverages.
Ultra-processed foods are those that have a high content of additives including fats, starches, sugar, food dyes, stabilizers, and preservatives to make the foods appealing and extend their shelf life. But these additives contribute to excess “empty” calories and potential toxins. Many of the processes that ultra-processed foods go through strip the food ingredients of nutrients including fiber and protein, and replace those nutrients with sugar and salt. Foods considered highly processed include pastries, cookies, ice cream, crackers, candy, processed meat, cereal, and soft drinks as well as prepared meals like fast food. When consumed in excess, ultra-processed foods are linked to obesity, heart disease, and increased mortality. Reducing the amount of calories consumed from highly processed foods may reduce excess calories but does not eliminate exposure to the potential toxicity of the additive ingredients.
In addition to an increase in obesity, these ultra-processed foods introduce ingredients responsible for food sensitivities and may be partially responsible for the increase in asthma and allergies.
Specific examples of offending ingredients include high fructose corn syrup (or any corn syrup or corn “sugar”) and monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is a stimulating neurotoxin and can damage nerve cells and brain function, particularly in young, developing brains. Preservatives like BHA, BHT, EDTA, and TBHQ have been linked to allergies, asthma, eczema, migraines, and digestive distress; even cancer. Many of these additives cause inflammation, particularly of the gastrointestinal tract, and are linked to inflammatory bowel diseases. Polysorbate-80, a common emulsifier in foods and pharmaceuticals, has been shown to be carcinogenic (causes cancer). Propylene glycol, another common emulsifier also found in foods and body care products as well as pharmaceuticals, has been linked to central nervous system issues.
While these highly processed foods may be easy and convenient, they are setting our children up for a lifetime of chronic disease.