by Kevin Schofield
This weekend’s “long read” is a report from a 20-year study on the food consumption habits of American youth. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NAHANES) has been collecting data since 1999, in two-year intervals, on what foods kids are eating, broken out across four categories: unprocessed and minimally processed; processed culinary ingredients such as oils; processed foods like cheeses; and “ultraprocessed” foods such as fast food, sweetened beverages, and store-bought ready-to-heat dishes.
In their most recent cohort, 2017–2018, they found that over two-thirds of the calories consumed by youth are from ultraprocessed food, up from 61.4% in 1999. The ready-to-heat/eat category jumped from 2.2% all the way up to 11.1%; that includes store-bought pizza, hamburgers, and sandwiches, and pizza alone is now over 5% of kids’ total calorie consumption.
The percentage of calories from unprocessed and minimally processed foods dropped over five points and is now less than a quarter. Kids are actually eating more fruit than 20 years ago but less grains and milk. Consumption of meat, fish, and eggs actually increased from 1999 to 2008 but has since dropped twice as much as it went up.
Another bright spot in the data is that the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages has steadily declined over 20 years and is now half of the 1999 rate. Unfortunately, it seems that (as many researchers feared would happen) many people have substituted other sugary snacks and sweets for their sweetened drinks.
The demographics within this larger trend are very interesting. Consumption of ultraprocessed foods has increased across all age groups, and slightly more for boys than girls. The increase is largest for Black youth and least for Mexican American kids — suggesting that cultures favoring home cooking may have a bit more advantage in resisting the trend. The increase is nearly identical for all income levels, though less pronounced in households where the parents have higher levels of education.
The research report has an informative discussion of the nutritional differences between ultraprocessed and other foods. Generally, ultraprocessed foods have a much poorer nutrient profile, though FDA regulations (and societal pressures) have created some notable exceptions to that. Ultraprocessed foods these days tend to have less saturated fats and are fortified with iron, folate, and folic acid — important nutrients that tend to be lacking in Western diets (even healthy ones). But that’s no argument to rush out and buy a lot of ultraprocessed foods; they also have a ton of added sugars and salt, which are significant contributors to the epidemics of diabetes and high blood pressure in the United States.
It’s notable that the currently available data stops in 2018 — before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It will be interesting to see in future years how the shutdown and stay-at-home orders affected kids’ eating habits (and in general trends in home cooking) as well as whether we resume our old habits as the economy returns to pre-pandemic patterns.
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.
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