What That New Ultra-Processed Food Study Means for Our Kids

I’m guessing that by now you’ve read about a small but important new study exploring the effects of eating an ultra-processed diet.

In case you missed it, though, 10 men and 10 women were recruited to live in a research facility for four weeks, during which time their food intake was rigorously monitored. For two weeks, subjects were offered three meals a day and one snack consisting of only whole foods, and for two weeks they were offered mostly ultra-processed foods. In each case, the meals and snacks were carefully calibrated to offer the same number of calories, macronutrients, sugar, sodium, and fiber, and subjects were allowed to consume as much or as little as they chose.

The results were stunning. When eating ultra-processed foods, subjects consumed, on average, almost 500 more calories a day. The reason, according to the study’s researchers, is that the whole food diet caused subjects’ appetite-suppressing hormones to increase while hunger-stimulating hormones decreased, leading to the study’s simple—even obvious—conclusion: “Limiting consumption of ultra-processed foods may be an effective strategy for obesity prevention and treatment.”

But today’s children are glutted at every turn with ultra-processed food, and having just finished writing an entire book on that very subject, I can’t help but view the study’s results through that same lens.

As just one example, yesterday I happened to receive the latest installment of the School Nutrition Association’s SmartBrief, which often consists of a paid advertisement that’s emailed to its thousands of members. These ads are typically placed by manufacturers of K-12 food, and they invariably promise beleaguered school nutrition directors that these ultra-processed products will increase student participation in their meal programs (likely true).

Yesterday’s SmartBrief ad was placed PepsiCo, a major K-12 supplier. Take a look at just some of the brands it currently promotes to schools:

And to be clear, these ultra-processed foods and drinks aren’t just sold as extra snacks in the a la carte line. They’re very often worked into federally-reimbursed school meals.

Here are a few of the many recipes suggested by PepsiCo, and I know from my research for Kid Food that school nutrition directors often eagerly embrace these sorts of entrèes. Indeed, the “Walking Taco” shown below (a ripped-open bag of reduced-fat Doritos, topped with meat and cheese) is especially popular right now on school menus around the country:

Here’s the rub: every single one of these branded foods (along with hundreds more like them from other processed food companies) have been carefully calibrated on a nutrient-by-nutrient basis to comply with the new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act standards. But what this new ultra-processed food study tells us is that a narrow “nutritionism” focus is utterly, entirely, 100 precent misplaced.

Yet there are so many powerful forces pushing our nation’s school meal program—and, indeed, almost all other kid-centric environments, from school aftercare to soccer practice—to offer kids ultra-processed food. One key factor, of course, is cost. (The researchers in the new study were quick to point out that their unprocessed diet cost 40 percent more than the ultra-processed diet.) But another factor is the processed food industry’s self-serving messaging about what kids (supposedly) will and won’t eat, a marketing tactic I explore in detail in Kid Food.

And this brings me back that horrible Kraft Heinz “For the Win Win” ad campaign I told you about last month. In a series of commercials, parents are shown abandoning their healthy meals (such as salmon served with broccoli and rice) for the company’s highly processed mac n’ cheese, on the dubious premise that kids just won’t eat the former. Here’s one example:


Since  I wrote that post last month, the Center for Science in the Public interest has asked Kraft Heinz to pull or replace this entire campaign, and the organization is asking concerned parents to lend their voices to this effort. To that end, here’s a quick tweet you can send the company right now:

.@KraftHeinzCo You have every right to sell unhealthy products, but *actively discouraging* parents from offering their children healthier food is just plain wrong. Pull or replace your #ForTheWinWin campaign today. Click To Tweet

Thanks, everyone. See you after the holiday weekend.


Follow TLT on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, subscribe to Lunch Tray posts, and download my FREE 50-page guide, “How to Get Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom.” You can also now pre-order my new book Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World —coming out this fall!

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