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The Threat of Ultraprocessed Foods Rises: Recent Trends on What Our Kids Eat

By Dr. Arthur Lavin

As we contend with COVID-19 and its Delta variant, recent news on what our kids eat has been issued, and the news requires our attention.

We all know that junk food is not good food.  Otherwise, why would it be called junk?

But likely not everyone knows that as of a year or two ago, outside of COVID, junk food overtook all other preventable causes of death in America.

For all my life, that title had been tightly held by tobacco, which manages to kill 500,000 Americans a year, for many, many years.  That is about 25% of all preventable deaths in the United States!

But in 2018-2019, in a rather shocking development, junk food took over from tobacco, killing an astounding 540,000 Americans.

Just a few weeks ago, the US government issued the trends in junk food eating by our kids from 1999-2018.  The trends were reported on the eating of what is called ultraprocessed foods.

What are Ultraprocessed Foods?

Ultraprocessed foods meet two criteria:  industrially produced, and containing ingredients you would normally not cook with.  The use of factories, rather than farms, to create food has ushered in an era in which much of what we eat contains highly purified ingredients that then allow large factories to manufacture foods that are amazingly yummy.

Examples of ingredients you don’t normally find in most families’ kitchens include:

  • Casein
  • Whey
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Maltodextrin
  • Soy protein isolates
  • Flavor enhancers
  • Emulsifiers

Examples of ultraprocessed foods fill many of our diets and include:

  • Sugary snacks
  • Salty snacks
  • Sweet drinks
  • Many ice cream brands
  • Processed meats including hot dogs
  • Frozen meals

The Trends

So this study looked at trends over a 20 year period, from 1999-2018, and looked at kids ages 2-19 years old.

There was the initial finding that even in 1999, 61.4% of all calories eaten by our children ages 2-19 were from ultraprocessed foods.  That number sadly rose to 67.0% by 2018.

One bit of good news was that the intake of sugary drinks plummeted, falling from 10.8% of all calories to 5.3%, a truly remarkable improvement.

The main finding of concern revealed where our kids are getting their biggest chunk of junk:  ready-to-eat/heat foods.  The total number of calories in a child’s diet from this type of food in 1999 was 2.2.% and now our children get 11.2% of all their calories from these convenience foods.

Bottom Lines

  1. Junk food is not only bad for you, but with the transient exception of COVID-19, junk food is now the #1 cause of preventable death in the United States, surpassing tobacco in 2019, killing 540,000 of us every year.
  2. Infants do not eat junk food.
  3. Junk food is part of our diet largely by choices all us parents make for our children.  The results are visible in our children’s weight growth curves.  All people are around 10 pounds of each other from ages 0-4 years old.  That is, the 3rd%tile and 99th%tile 4 year olds are only about 10 pounds apart.  But by age 20 that span explodes to over a 200 pound range, maybe more.  Mainly from junk food.
  4. Junk food has been selling well for years to our kids.  Even back on 1999 it made up about 61% of all the calories our children eat.
  5. That number has since only increased, in 2018 it was 67%, 2/3 of all our kids’ calories are from junk food.
  6. Thankfully, pleas to cut out sugar drinks have been working, kids drink half as much now as 20 years ago.
  7. The main problem in our choices sits with the read-to-heat/eat foods.

We are reminded that it is hard to make junk food from scratch at home.  So focusing food choices at home on fruits, vegetables, and items we make or cook, can protect us all from the #1 cause of preventable death in the US.

To your health,
Dr. Arthur Lavin

 

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