Ultra-Processed Foods: Two Thirds of Calories in Youth

Nestlé's Food For InfantsA new study in JAMA this week tells us that American youth get two thirds of their calories from ultra-processed foods. Is the response to this moral panic? Or does this observation document a serious threat to public health? It is easy to find responses on both ends of this spectrum and everything in between.

Observational Research

This is one more piece of observational research to document the growing prevalence of ultra-processed foods in diets all over the world.

In this case, Lu Wang and colleagues analyzed data from multiple cycles of NHANES surveys. These data spanned two decades from 1999 to 2018. They were looking specifically at the dietary patterns of American youth and focusing on ultra-processed foods.

They found a clear trend of increasing consumption of these foods, making them an increasing portion of the food than young people consume. Over two decades, ultra-processed foods rose from 61 to 67 percent of the calories that young persons consume.


If you look closely, you can see signs of a Whack-A-Mole game. Ready to heat and eat foods rose five fold. Sweet snacks were up by 20 percent. But yesterday’s villain – sugar-sweetened beverages – dropped by more than half.

It’s no wonder that the marvellous predictions for the health benefits of SSB taxes have not come true in places like Mexico. When one sort of “bad” food falls out of favor, an endless array of other options rises up to take their place and stoke our appetites.

We’ve said it before, food systems are engineered so that providers prosper when they sell us more food. Not necessarily better food.

Disparate Impacts

The other thing that is plain in this data is that the penetration of ultra-processed foods into the diets of American youth follows very disparate patterns. The trends for consuming ever more ultra-processed foods were far stronger among Black and Mexican American youth. The increases in these groups were 50 to 100 percent higher.

Will healthful whole foods become a marker for social and economic privilege?

Room for Debate

The evidence linking ultra-processed foods to bad health outcomes is growing stronger. But still, the definitions are a bit squishy. And clearly, ultra-processed foods are not going to just disappear from the food supply. The food industry has done a remarkable job to meet the old – perhaps soon to be obsolete – goal of providing adequate quantities of food in stable forms that can feed the whole world.

Now the industry and policy makers have much work to do, figuring out how to improve the quality of the food supply and the health outcomes it produces. Anyone who tells you they have the answer is either a liar, naive, or Cassandra.

Click here for the study and here for the commentary JAMA published with it. For further reporting, click here, here, and here.

Nestlé’s Food For Infants, advertising art by Alphonse Mucha / WikiArt

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


August 14, 2021

2 Responses to “Ultra-Processed Foods: Two Thirds of Calories in Youth”

  1. August 14, 2021 at 9:33 am, Elizabeth Guckenheimer said:

    Hi Ted, have you come across the identical twin MDs from the UK, who have been broadcasting on the theme of UPFs and how they might account for their own differing weights despite sharing identical genes.