New Zealand children consume almost half of their energy intake from ultra-processed food by 12 months old, with consumption rising even higher by the time they turn five years.
That’s according to new research by the University of Otago’s Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Research Centre (EDOR ), published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Researchers analysed dietary information from the Prevention of Overweight in Infancy (POI) study, which studied more than 800 Dunedin children from birth over the past 10 years.
By 12 months old, children derived 45 per cent of their dietary intake from ultra-processed food, which increased to 51 per cent by the age of five.
Breads, yoghurt, crackers, cereals, sausages, and muesli bars were among the ultra-processed foods making the greatest contribution to young children’s diets.
Lead author Louise Fangupo says food preferences and eating habits often develop early in life and can track right through childhood and adolescence into adulthood, so developing healthy habits early has both short and long-term benefits.
“Ultra-processed food, which is usually described as inherently unhealthy, has received a lot of attention in scientific and other literature recently, but until now nobody has investigated its contribution to the diets of very young New Zealand children.”
Ultra-processed foods are typically energy-dense products that are high in sugar, unhealthy fats, and salt, while being low in dietary fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals.
A food’s ultra-processed categorisation refers to the extent and purpose of the food processing and is not always a reliable indicator of its nutrient content or dietary quality.
For example, yoghurt can either be a minimally-processed product, or laden with sugar, flavours and additives.
Bread and crackers are considered acceptable under relevant nutrition guidelines, and may be served as part of meals or accompanying items such as sandwich fillings or dips, which likely contribute useful nutrients to children’s diets.
Ms Fangupo says she hopes parents will realise that while ultra-processed food often has a bad reputation, it is unnecessary – and probably unrealistic – to expect to be able to completely avoid it when feeding children.
Confectionery and sugary carbonated drinks are best consumed infrequently, however most wholegrain breads, many high-fibre breakfast cereals, most yoghurts, and infant formulas, will be important sources of a range of nutrients for many children, especially when served alongside non or minimally-processed foods such as fruit and vegetables, she says.
The research results do not indicate any link between demographic factors and children’s ultra-processed food intake, she says.
“Ultra-processed foods are often described in literature as being ‘cheap’ so it might have been reasonable to wonder if intake would be greater among families living in more disadvantaged areas.
“However, these findings indicate that demographic factors are not predictive of children’s ultra-processed food intakes but they are instead commonly consumed by children from a range of backgrounds.”
EDOR director Professor Rachael Taylor and Associate Professor Anne-Louise Heath from Human Nutrition will lead two new studies to investigate what babies are eating now, a decade on from the POI study. This includes an investigation into the use of popular baby food pouches.
First Foods NZ is an observational cross-sectional study that will investigate nutrition and dental health in 625 babies aged 7-10 months from the Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin areas.
The related Young Foods NZ is a similar study in six-month-olds to 3.9 year-old children.