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Processed Foods for Kids: The Facts All Parents Should Know

Many parents find it increasingly difficult to keep ultraprocessed foods, commonly referred to as “junk food” at bay. Learn the facts about ultra-processed foods in your child’s diet and how to rethink convenience foods in your pantry.

The consumption of ultra-processed foods increased from 61.4% to 67.0% in a child’s total daily diet from the years 1999 to 2008, according to new research.

Most parents know ultra-processed food isn’t ideal, so how does junk food make its way into our children’s daily diet?

Mainly, it’s convenient and efficient.

And taste is also a factor–the sprinkle of “magic yummy dust” over food products helps to gain taste-bud loyalty from our kids.

Not only that, food commercials target and entice little ones. If you have ever shopped with a child, you know firsthand the impact of advertising.

But are ultra-processed foods really that bad?

According to recent studies, junk food for children is on the rise and it might be worse for a child’s long-term health than we realized.

Let’s dive into the facts about junk food. I’ll give you some junk food alternatives and tips for saying no to it.

processed foods for kids

“Healthy” Food vs “Junk” Food (aka Ultra-Processed Foods for Kids)

Ultra-processed food isn’t hard to spot. Generally, it comes in boxes and packages. Food items like:  

Pastries, cookies, crackers, ice cream, candy, processed meat, sugary beverages, fast food, soft drinks, and prepared meals like pizza.

How many of these items are in your pantry or refrigerator?

Ultra-processed foods are everywhere, but what is the difference between foods that are ultra-processed vs. processed vs. minimally processed?

You’ll see the following classes of artificial ingredients on ultra-processed food’s ingredient list:

  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Hydrogenated or inter-esterified oils
  • Hydrolyzed proteins
  • Additives that make the final product palatable or more appealing (such as flavors, flavor enhancers, colors, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, sweeteners, thickeners, and anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling and glazing agents)

Healthy foods are unprocessed foods or minimally processed foods.

Unprocessed foods are whole foods like fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables. They go from farm to table.

Most foods in the grocery store have some food processing, to some extent. The difference between processed and minimally processed food is processed foods may have ingredients like fat, salt and sugar added to them.

Minimally processed foods make up a huge part of our food system. They’re convenient, have a longer shelf life and can make your prep in the kitchen much easier (and faster!).

(It’s much easier to make my pumpkin bread using canned pumpkin puree than wrestling with a sugar-pumpkin!)

The term “processed” doesn’t mean foods are unhealthy. 

Just take a look at these examples of minimally processed foods:

  • Rice and other grains
  • Beans and legumes
  • Vegetables and fruits
  • Nuts
  • Milk
  • Meat

Here’s What Research Says About Ultra-Processed Food

Children develop taste preferences as early as the first year when they are introduced to solid foods. This early childhood phase informs food habits!

Ultra-processed foods have been associated with lasting health consequences, but not all food categorized as ultra-processed are nutrient-poor, health-harming foods. For instance, soy milk is a healthful, nutritious beverage, especially for children allergic to milk, and those who follow a plant-based diet. I think it falls into the category deemed “ultra-processed” unfairly.

So, as we look at ultra-processed foods, we need to be careful not to lump nutritious foods into this category.

1. May Contribute to Extra Body Fat

Childhood obesity increased 47.1% during the years 1980 to 2013. We’ve long suspected the role of ultra-processed food as one cause for this increase.

In a recent study adults ate faster, consumed more calories, had a higher BMI and had a higher percentage of body fat when they consumed an ultra-processed food diet compared to the adults on an unprocessed diet.

2. Kids May Get Too Many of the Wrong Nutrients

Here’s the catch. Many ultra-processed foods pack a lot more calories, sugar and fat than the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend for healthy growth and development, and not enough fiber and key nutrients.

In a study of adults and kids over 2 years old, the percentage of fat and sugar in the diet increased as ultra-processed food made more frequent appearances in the daily diet. The diets high in ultra-processed food delivered a whopping 82% of sugar, 11% of trans fat and 25% of calories.

3. May Increase the Risk of Chronic Disease

Diets high in sugar, fat and salt that are low in vitamins and fiber are known risk factors for health risks like cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Yes – these diseases are more common in adulthood, but the road to chronic disease starts early. When kids’ eating patterns are like this, they are at higher risk for developing these chronic conditions later.

One study found that ultra-processed foods played a role in increasing cholesterol in children as young as 3 to 7 years.

Fat, sugar and salt aren’t the only concern.

Ultra-processed foods may contain phthalates and bisphenols (BPA) in the food and packaging, although many companies have moved away from the use of BPA in their packaging, according to Packaging Digest, a packaging industry resource, despite the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stance that low levels of BPA are safe.

Phthalates and BPA are endocrine disrupting chemicals that can start the disease process going early in life.

One study of adults and children over 6 years old found that ultra-processed foods increased the amount of phthalates measured in the urine.

Children are particularly vulnerable to these toxins and they tend to consume more ultra-processed food than adults.

Saying No to “Junk Food:” Tips for Parents

Children remember taglines, colorful box decorations, and chummy characters.

When they find these products in the store aisles–oh, boy!–be ready for the onslaught of begging, negotiating, promising, and all-out tantrums if you don’t buy what they want.

What’s a parent to do?

In a few words: Take charge. Set limits. Talk about it.

Take Charge of Healthy Options 

Determine how much ultra-processed food you will allow in your house. If you are liberal with them in the pantry–your child will likely eat more of them.

Replace bags and boxes, colors and dyes, and unidentifiable ingredients with satisfying “real food” snacks such as whole wheat bagels with peanut butter, whole grain cereal with low-fat milk, or low fat yogurt with fresh fruit and granola.

Set Limits on Sweet Snacks and Treats 

Use the 90:10 Rule to adjust your purchases and food balance to skew to a healthy diet. 

Target 90% of your child’s daily intake to come from healthy, “growing” foods such as low fat dairy, lean meats, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Leave the remaining 10% for “fun foods,” or ultra-processed sweets and high sugar foods such as sugary drinks, cookies, chips and candy.

Talk About It

Create opportunities to talk with your child about nutritious foods and not-so nourishing foods.  Differentiate the two, keeping a neutral attitude without calling food “bad.”

Emphasizing healthy eating and allowing small amounts of “fun foods” keeps the balance in favor of good nutrition.

Need more help? Read My Child Refuses to Eat Anything But Junk Food.

“Junk” Food Alternatives

Boxes and bags offer easy access compared to pots and pans!

And easier than peelers and knives. 

Ripping into a bag or opening a box to quiet the nagging child in the backseat or to get to the next mommy task is easier, especially for the busy parent (and what parent isn’t busy?).

Not all convenience foods are ultra-processed. Here are some minimally processed foods to keep in your pantry and freezer. Try individual portioned packages so your little one can grab a snack on his own.

  • Popsicles or make your own 100% fruit ice pops
  • String cheese
  • Raisins or other dried fruit (without added sugar)
  • Apple slices in a bag
  • Fruit cups (in water, not syrup)
  • Granola bars
  • Banana and nut or nut-free butter (try individual packs so your kiddo can serve himself)
  • Homemade fruit muffins (tip: bake them in batches and keep in the freezer)

85+ Healthy Snacks for Teens!

Final Thoughts

Saying no to ultra-processed food isn’t easy.

The availability of junk foods can be widespread at school events, day care, other family homes. Your child’s consumption of them can mount quickly.

But total elimination is unnecessary! And assigning guilt and shame to these foods isn’t needed either. Some families don’t have the financial means or access to whole, fresh foods, so let’s keep that in mind.

Processed foods are widespread in our food supply and offer meaningful nutrients, while ultra-processed foods may offer little nutrition for your kids. Not all ultraprocessed food is unhealthy or lacking in nutrition (hello, plant-based milk, tofu, and baby formula). But you can be choosy about what you choose to feed your family!

Help your child navigate the wide world of food as he gets older by acknowledging the presence, the appealing taste, and the occasional appearance of ultra-processed food in your child’s diet.

How do you tame the boxes and bags in your pantry?

Mary Sheedy Kurcinka on The Nourished Child podcast

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