Way Too Much: Ultra-Processed Food Makes up Majority of Kids’ Diets

The results of a new study reveal some seriously dangerous facts about the diets of U.S. children and teenagers*:  The majority (two-thirds) of young peoples’ calories come from chemical-laden ultra-processed food. More specifically, the calories that children and adolescents consumed from ultra-processed foods jumped from 61% to 67% of total caloric intake from 1999 to 2018. 

Specific Findings

The largest spike in calories came from such ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat dishes as takeout and frozen pizza and burgers: from 2.2% to 11.2% of calories. The second largest spike in calories came from packaged sweet snacks and desserts**, the consumption of which grew from 10.6% to 12.9%.

There was a larger increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods among non-Hispanic Blacks (10.3%) and Mexican Americans (7.6%) than non-Hispanic Whites (5.2%).

Over the study period, calories from often healthier unprocessed or minimally processed foods decreased from 28.8% to 23.5%. The remaining percentage of calories came from moderately processed foods such as cheese and canned fruits and vegetables, and consumer-added flavor enhancers such as sugar, honey, maple syrup, and butter.

*This new study is part of a series led by Friedman School researchers investigating patterns and trends in diet quality among U.S. adults and children. The study characterized trends in ultra-processed food consumption among U.S. children aged 2-19 years from 1999 to 2018, overall and among population subgroups, using data from 10 consecutive cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). It further assessed major ultra-processed food subgroups consumed by U.S. children in the latest cycle of NHANES (2017-2018) and associated nutrient profiles. The average age of participants was 10.7 years and was roughly equally divided between boys and girls. It relied on 24-hour dietary recall interviews conducted by trained personnel; older children and teens directly reported on the foods they ate while parents and caregivers did so for younger children. The percentage of calories consumed by participants was determined using the NOVA food classification system developed by researchers at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

**Calories from sugar-sweetened beverages dropped from 10.8% to 5.3% of overall calories, a 51% drop.

Journal Reference:  Lu Wang, Euridice Martínez Steele, Mengxi Du, Jennifer L. Pomeranz, Lauren E. O’Connor, Kirsten A. Herrick, Hanqi Luo, Xuehong Zhang, Dariush Mozaffarian, Fang Fang Zhang. Trends in Consumption of Ultraprocessed Foods Among US Youths Aged 2-19 Years, 1999-2018. JAMA, 2021; 326 (6): 519 DOI: 10.1001/jama.2021.10238