The diets of British children have recently come under scrutiny, and it is not good news. An upcoming report by First Steps Nutrition Trust is warning that our toddlers have one of the worst diets in the world, with levels of ultra-processed food being a major factor and often making up two thirds of their diet.
Mass-produced foods are generally high in starch, free sugars, pro-inflammatory oils, and low in key nutrients such as iron, zinc, calcium and omega-3. This high intake of convenient ultra-processed food at that age is really worrying as it helps determine their future eating habits and this has serious implications for their physical and mental health as well as learning trajectories, now and in the future.
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What are ultra-processed foods?
Firstly, a quick recap as to what makes a food “ultra-processed”. Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are defined as food products that contain a high proportion of ingredients that are processed to the point that they are no longer recognisable as their original source. This includes things like ready meals, puffed toddler snacks, baby food pouches, juices and cordial drinks as well as biscuits, cereals and crisps. These foods often contain additives, such as artificial sweeteners, preservatives, flavourings, and colourings to improve their taste and appearance as well as their shelf life. They are also added to reduce the price of the end product.
In practical terms, a home-made apple crumble might well contain apple, brown sugar, flour and butter. All simple ingredients that have been consumed by humans for centuries. On the other hand, the ingredients list on one supermarket “Classic Apple Crumble” contains a whopping 18 ingredients. Yes, there are the same four main ingredients (in ten different modified and processed variations…), but this crumble also contain lots of extra ultra-processed ingredients to extend the shelf life, including Acidity Regulator (Citric Acid), Firming Agent (Calcium Chloride), Preservative (Potassium Sorbate) and Emulsifier (Mono- and Diglycerides of Fatty Acids). And it’s these added ingredients made by food scientists that are the big worry, and that are thought to affect our children’s metabolism and development. I doubt very much that you would be able to buy any of these ingredients individually in the supermarket or have any of them in your kitchen!
How much UPF foods are our kids eating?
This report by First Steps Nutrition Trust (due to be released this spring) has found UPF foods make up a shocking two thirds of a UK toddler’s daily calorie intake.
A study published in 2019 found that children were consuming up to 74.9% UPF foods. And it gets worse as they get older with teenagers and young adults consuming a staggering 82.9% of UPF foods in their diet UPF intake has been creeping up over the last few years, and supermarkets are now brimming with ultra-processed foods.
The problems with eating too much UPF
The implications of such a diet are worrying. Ultra-processed foods are generally high in empty calories, refined starches and free sugar as well as pro-inflammatory oils but low in nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. This means that kids who consume large amounts of these foods are at higher risk of becoming overweight or obese, and developing associated health problems such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
A study found that consuming a diet high in ultra-processed foods was associated with an increased risk of developing symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that consuming a diet high in ultra-processed foods can have a significant bearing on cognitive function and child behaviour. Research has found that children who consume a diet high in ultra-processed foods have lower cognitive scores than those who consume a diet based on unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
What are the main UPF foods that young children are eating?
- Fruit juice and smoothies While fruit juice may seem like a healthy option, it is often high in sugar and low in nutrients. This is because the juicing process in the factories removes much of the fibre and other beneficial nutrients from the fruit. In addition, many fruit juices and cordials contain added sugar or artificial sweeteners, which can be just as disruptive.
As a result, the British Nutrition Foundation recommends that toddlers should only consume small amounts of fruit juice (125ml a day), and ideally it should be diluted with water to reduce its sugar content. Instead, toddlers should be encouraged to eat whole fruits, which are a much better source of nutrients and fibre.
- Puffed snacks Puffed snacks are often marketed towards children as a healthy and convenient snack option, but, they are often high in starches and seed oils that can easily disrupt their blood glucose and are pro-inflammatory.
Puffed snacks are made from grains or other ingredients that have been puffed under high heat and pressure and this processing makes the starches available to be processed faster and more intensely in their little systems; even more than giving them table sugar! While some puffed snacks may be made from whole grains and contain vegetable extracts these still provide minimal nutritional value for the burst of energy. The extra vitamins added to some of these snacks are required by law to prevent deficiencies because the processing strips out their natural vitamins.
Parents and carers should be cautious when choosing puffed snacks for their toddlers and should read the labels carefully to ensure that they are low in salt, sugar, and fat. Better snack options for toddlers include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole-grain crackers with cheese, hummus or yoghurt.
- Food pouches Baby and toddler pouches and squeezy tubes are a convenient way to provide toddlers with pureed fruits and vegetables, but they can be high in sugar and low in fibre which can disrupt blood sugars easily. Look out for the percentage of fruit in any pouch you offer your kids – even a chicken and broccoli one might contain up to 80% apple puree!
To reduce the amount of ultra-processed food pouches, focus on offering whole fruits and vegetables instead. Toddlers can easily eat sliced or diced fruits and veg, and you can use a blender to puree them at home where you can also add yoghurt, nut butters, tahini, oats, avocado and seeds to balance them better and make them more nutritious. This not only provides a healthier option for toddlers, but it also encourages them to try new textures and flavours. These can be popped into refillable pouches which are more planet-friendly than single use pouches.
How can we improve things?
Firstly, I’d like to see a greater focus on education and awareness around the importance of a healthy diet for young children. This includes educating parents, carers and teachers on the problems associated with ultra-processed foods and providing them with practical tips on how to incorporate more whole foods into their children’s diets. There should also be a greater emphasis on cooking and food preparation skills in schools and other educational settings.
Secondly, the food industry needs to be held more accountable for the role it plays in promoting and selling these ultra attractive, ultra-processed foods. This could include tighter regulation around the marketing of unhealthy foods to children.
Finally, I feel there needs to be greater investment in the provision of healthy food options in low-income communities. This could include the provision of free or low-cost fruit and vegetables, and the development of community food projects.
What you can do to help your kids eat well
My message to you is to cook from scratch as much as possible (and get the kids to join in) and do your best to educate yourself and your children on the importance of nutrition for brain and body – my books (I Can’t Believe It’s Baby Food and The Good Stuff), blogs and recipes are a great place to start!
You don’t have to be perfect, but aim for less than 20% ultra-processed foods, with 80% of your food coming from whole foods. If you do this, you will be wonderfully on track!
- Summary of draft report: Feeding young children aged 1 to 5 years
- Foods and drinks aimed at infants and young children: evidence and opportunities for action
- British toddlers’ diet among worst in world, experts warn
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- British Dental Association Fruit Pouch Analysis
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