The results from two decades worth of research show that ultra-processed foods comprise 2/3 of the calories in adolescents’ diets.

From 1999 to 2018, the number of calories that children and teens consumed from ultra-processed foods jumped from 61% to 67%.

Senior and corresponding author Fang Fang Zhang, nutrition epidemiologist at the Friedman School, said, “Some whole-grain breads and dairy foods are ultra-processed, and they’re healthier than other ultra-processed foods. Processing can keep food fresher longer, allows for food fortification and enrichment, and enhances consumer convenience. But many ultra-processed foods are less healthy, with more sugar and salt, and less fiber, than unprocessed and minimally processed foods, and the increase in their consumption by children and teenagers is concerning.’’

Thus, the largest spikes in calories came from ready-to-eat meals like pizza, frozen meals, and take-out, as well as packaged snacks and desserts.

Data showed a larger spike in ultra-processed calories in Black adolescents’ diet. The study stated that more research is needed to properly identify why this is the case. Conversely, Mexican American adolescents consumed less ultra-processed foods, which researchers speculate could be due to more homecooked meals.

The study’s first author, Lu Wang, a postdoctoral fellow at the Friedman School, said, “In additional analyses, we compared the composition of ultra-processed foods to non-ultra processed foods using data from the 2017-2018 period. We found that ultra-processed foods contain a substantially higher percentage of calories from carbohydrates and added sugars, and higher levels of sodium, but also had less fiber and a lower percentage of calories from protein.”

Ultra-processed foods are classified as ready-to-eat foods that have been heavily processed. Many are much higher in carbohydrates, sodium, and sugar. While lacking basic nutrition like protein, fiber, minerals, and vitamins.

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