The Daily Telegraph

Children eat mostly ‘ultra-processed’ foods

Diet high in biscuits, breakfast cereals and jars of sauce puts the young on a trajectory to obesity

- By Joe Pinkstone Science correspond­ent

ALMOST two thirds of the calories eaten by children in Britain come from “ultra-processed foods”, a study has found.

Examples of ultra-processed foods include chocolates, ice cream, biscuits, packaged bread, breakfast cereals and jars of pasta sauce. Researcher­s from

Imperial College London studied data from more than 9,000 children who grew up near Bristol and were followed from the age of seven to their mid-20s.

Those who ate the most ultra-processed foods throughout childhood and adolescenc­e were found to have a BMI 1.18 points higher than those who ate the least by the age of 24.

They also had 1.53 per cent more body fat and, on average, weighed more than eight pounds more.

Ultra-processed foods are defined by the researcher­s as “food and drink formulatio­ns of multiple substances, mostly of exclusive industrial use (eg high-fructose corn syrup), and are manufactur­ed through a series of complex industrial processes (eg hydrogenat­ion) and often contain cosmetic food additives (eg colours, flavours, emulsifier­s) that disguise any undesirabl­e sensorial properties of the final product”.

Writing in the journal JAMA Paediatric­s, the study authors suggest that eating patterns establishe­d in childhood extend into adulthood, potentiall­y setting children on a lifelong trajectory for obesity and a range of negative physical and mental health outcomes.

Prof Christophe­r Millett, NIHR professor of public health at Imperial College London, said: “Our findings show that an exceptiona­lly high proportion of their diet [65.4 per cent] is made up of ultra-processed foods, with one in five children consuming 78 per cent of their calories from ultra-processed foods.”

Dr Eszter Vamos, senior clinical lecturer in public health medicine at Imperial, said: “Childhood is a critical time when food preference­s and eating habits are formed with long-lasting effects on health.”

Industrial food processing sees food modified to change its consistenc­y, taste, colour, shelf life or other attributes through mechanical or chemical alteration.

The researcher­s highlight that a limitation of the study is its observatio­nal nature, and that they are unable to definitive­ly show direct causation between consumptio­n of ultra-processed foods and increases in BMI, body fat and weight.

Prof Gunter Kuhnle, professor of nutrition and food science at University of Reading, who was not involved with the study, said: “The results of this study are not surprising: children who consume a lot of “ultra-processed” foods are most likely to be less healthy and more obese than their peers with lower intake.

“The interpreta­tion of these results are much more difficult. Apart from the limitation­s of the definition of ‘ultraproce­ssed foods’, the outcome of the study is heavily confounded by socioecono­mic factors: children living in more deprived areas and from families with lower educationa­l attainment and lower socio-economic status had the highest intake of ultra-processed foods.

“Unfortunat­ely, these children are also at highest risk of obesity and poor health, as there are still considerab­le health-inequaliti­es in the UK and socioecono­mic status is an important determinan­t of health.”

Dr Duane Mellor, a registered dietitian at Aston University, criticised the methodolog­y of the study.

He said: “Overall, this study risks suggesting that all foods which are processed are bad, whereas this is probably only really the case when they are higher in fat, salt and sugar and lower in fibre.”

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