Almost two-thirds (65.4 percent) of the calories children eat in the UK come from “ultra-processed foods,” a study found.
Examples of highly processed foods include chocolates, ice cream, cookies, prepackaged bread, breakfast cereals, and glasses of pasta sauce.
Researchers at Imperial College London examined data from more than 9,000 children who grew up near Bristol and were followed from ages seven to their mid-twenties.
Those who ate the most highly processed foods during their childhood and adolescence had a BMI of 1.18 points higher than those who ate the least by the age of 24.
They also had 1.53 percent more body fat and weighed an average of eight pounds more.
The eating habits of childhood extend into later years
Ultra-processed foods are defined by the researchers as “food and beverage formulations made up of several substances that are mostly used exclusively industrially (e.g. high fructose corn syrup) through a number of complex industrial processes (e.g. food additives (e.g. Colorings, flavors and emulsifiers) that disguise undesirable sensory properties of the end product ”.
Writing in the diary JAMA Pediatrics, the study’s authors suggested that established childhood eating patterns extend into adulthood, potentially leading children on a lifelong path to obesity and a range of negative physical and mental health outcomes.
Prof. Christopher Millett, Professor of Public Health at Imperial College London, said, “Our results show that an exceptionally high proportion of their diet is ultra-processed foods, with one in five children getting 78 percent of their calories from ultra-processed foods takes processed foods.
Dr. Eszter Vamos, Senior Clinical Lecturer in Public Health Medicine at Imperial College London, said: “Childhood is a critical time when food preferences and eating habits are shaped with long-term health implications.”
In industrial food processing, food is changed in order to change its consistency, taste, color, shelf life or other properties through mechanical or chemical changes. This is also usually missing in traditional, home-made dishes.
The work is the first to examine the relationship between the consumption of highly processed foods and obesity in children over a long period of time.
The researchers emphasize that one limitation of the study is its observational nature and that they are unable to definitively establish a direct link between consumption of highly processed foods and increases in BMI, body fat and weight.
Socio-economic factors at play
Prof. Gunter Kuhnle, Professor of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Reading – who was not involved in the study – said: “The results of this study are not surprising: children who consume a lot of ‘ultra-processed’ foods are on most likely less healthy and obese than their lower-intake peers.
“However, interpreting these results is much more difficult. Aside from the limitations of the definition of “highly processed foods”, the results of the study are heavily refuted by socio-economic factors: children who live in less-favored areas and from families with lower levels of education and socio-economic status have the highest intake of ultra-processed foods.
“Unfortunately, these children are also at the highest risk of obesity and poor health as there are still significant health inequalities in the UK and socio-economic status is a major health factor.”
Dr. However, Duane Mellor, a registered nutritionist at Aston University, criticized the study’s methodology and the broad definition of what constitutes ultra-processed foods.
“Overall, this study risks all processed foods to be bad, although that’s probably only really the case if they have more fat, salt and sugar and less fiber,” he said.