Are our children eating too many ultra-processed foods?

Earlier this month, the results of research in England using information from thousands of children over a number of years was published.  The conclusion is that urgent action is needed to reduce the harms of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) of the health of British children. Of greatest concern is the tendency some children show towards becoming overweight or obese and continuing bad eating habits into adulthood, leading to a range of physical and mental health problems, including diabetes and cancers.

What are ultra-processed foods? These are food and drinks that are heavily processed during their making, such as frozen pizzas, fizzy drinks, mass-produced packaged bread, shop-bought cookies and cakes and some ready-to-eat meals.

The authors explain the research, published today (14 June 2021) in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, provides important evidence of the potential damage of consuming highly processed foods which are often cheap, widely available and highly marketed. They say that action is needed urgently to reduce UPF consumption among children.

Professor Christopher Millett, NIHR Professor of Public Health at Imperial College London, said, “Through a lack of regulation, and enabling the low cost and ready availability of these foods, we are damaging our children’s long-term health. We urgently need effective policy change to redress the balance, to protect the health of children and reduce the proportion of these foods in their diet.”

Dr. Eszter Vamos, Senior Clinical Lecturer in Public Health Medicine at Imperial, said, “One of the key things we uncover here is a dose-response relationship. This means that it’s not only the children who eat the most ultra-processed foods have the worst weight gain, but also the more they eat, the worse this gets.”

“Childhood is a critical time when food preferences and eating habits are formed with long-lasting effects on health. We know that if children have an unhealthy weight early in life, this tends to trace into adolescence and then adulthood. We also know that an excessive consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to a number of health issues including being overweight or obese, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes and cancer later in life, so the implications are enormous.”

This latest study provides new, important data on the impact of industrial food processing, in which foods are modified to change their consistency, taste, colour, shelf life or other attributes through mechanical or chemical alteration—typically lacking in traditional, home-prepared meals—on child health.

Professor Millett was featured in the recent BBC One documentary “What Are We Feeding Our Kids?” in which he said, “Today in Britain, two in every three calories consumed amongst children and adolescents is derived from this group [of ultra-processed foods]. They’re everywhere, they’re cheap, and they’re heavily marketed. So they’re very difficult to resist and very difficult to avoid.”

Is the situation so different in South Africa?  We need to be very aware of what our children are eating.  If they are not eating their freshly prepared meals at home and rely on ‘fast food’ conveniently provided somewhere else, chances are that their diet will be lacking.





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