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Concern grows over the prevalence of ultra-processed foods in American diets


August 10, 2021

The accessibility, affordability and convenience of ultra-processed foods have made them a common staple in stores and pantries. But these foods, which are high in added sugars, oils, fats and other substances that normally wouldn’t be used in cooking, are growing more pervasive in American diets, especially for kids.

Dr. Katie Meyer

Dr. Katie Meyer

Dr. Lindsey Smith Taillie

Dr. Lindsey Smith Taillie

This trend is a major cause for concern for nutrition researchers like Katie Meyer, ScD, and Lindsey Smith Taillie, PhD, two assistant professors from the Department of Nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. They have co-authored an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that highlights a new study on the more than five percent increase in the share of ultra-processed foods found in youth diets over the past two decades. They call for action from public health leaders and researchers to understand of the role these foods play in the American food system and develop policies to reduce their consumption.

“The current food system is structured to promote overconsumption of ultra-processed foods through a variety of strategies, including price and promotions, aggressive marketing – including to youths and specifically Black and Latino youths – and high availability of these products in school,” they wrote. “The study found that high levels of ultra-processed food consumption persisted across levels of parental education and family income, and it found that Black and non-Hispanic White youths had higher intake levels of ultra-processed foods than did Mexican American youths.”

Meyer and Taillie suggest that the high levels of ultra-processed food found in the diets of kids of all demographics, coupled with the increase in ultra-processed food intake with age, suggest that policies to restructure the food environment are necessary to reduce their consumption.

Taillie, along with Gillings School nutrition scholars Shu Wen Ng, PhD, and Barry M. Popkin, PhD, have been studying the impact of policy changes on the consumption of processed and unhealthy foods in Chile. Chile was the first country to implement policies on labeling, marketing and school sales of products with high levels of calories and added sugar, sodium and saturated fat. Such policies, according to the authors, have contributed to product reformulation, reduced children’s exposure to food marketing and unhealthy foods in schools, reduced purchases of targeted products, and improved the abilities of both children and parents to identify unhealthy foods.

This week, Smith Taillie and Popkin are co-authors on a new study, published in The Lancet Planetary Health, which found that Chile’s package of healthy food policies has successfully decreased purchases of unhealthy food and drinks during the initial implementation phase. Such results are important in highlighting the potential impact that heathy food policies have on public health nutrition, even in the short term.

“Chile and the U.S. are quite similar in terms of patterns of eating and the high prevalence of childhood overweight and obesity, and I expect that Chile’s policies would work well in the United States, too,” Taillie noted. “At the same time, we need to build on Chile’s success. We need more data to understand which policies will also promote purchases of healthy, unprocessed foods like fruits and vegetables in addition to cutting unhealthy ultra-processed foods. We need a full suite of policy actions to create a food system that supports healthy diets and healthy kids.”

Read the full editorial in JAMA.