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The ‘Junk Food’ Dilemma: How to Steer Kids from Highly Processed to Highly Nutritious Foods

It’s worth the investment—involving children in healthy meal prep.   ©istock
It’s worth the investment—involving children in healthy meal prep. ©istock

If one starts with potato chips, "junk food" has been around since 1853—that’s when African American chef George Crum is believed to have sliced and fried super thin potatoes to appease a picky diner, and the “chips” were a hit.

In the 1940s, candymakers made non-messy, hard-shelled chocolate "M&Ms" for US military forces fighting overseas, while after the war, American inventor C.E. Doolin discovered that dehydrated cheese and cornmeal "Chee-tos" were irresistible to millions.

By the 1950s, as the snack food industry exploded with new products, the phrase "junk food" entered US dictionaries, and the battle began over how to handle store shelves bursting with yummy, inexpensive, and high-calorie items that have very little nutritional value.

Many Products Are Aimed at Children

Cracker Jack is a popcorn-peanuts-caramel-molasses product that debuted in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair and was later named America’s "first" junk food by author Andrew F. Smith in his 2006 "Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food."

In 1912, the makers of Cracker Jack added toys in their packages to attract young consumers, continuing the popular practice for more than a century, until 2016.

Ultraprocessed foods often include substances that are not normally used in cooking, such as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, flavor enhancers, artificial colors, and emulsifiers.

Today, there is ample evidence that many US children and adults consume a lot of high-sugar, high-fat, empty-calorie foods.

A 2021 study found that from 1999 to 2018, ultraprocessed foods became the main source of the young people’s energy. This study of 33,795 US youths aged 2-19 years, was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the São Paulo Research Foundation, and published in 2021 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"Ultraprocessed foods" in the 2021 study refer to products that are "ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat industrial formulations made mainly with ingredients refined or extracted from foods and contain additives but little to no whole foods."

Although these foods were originally processed to ensure food safety and increase food security, they are usually low in fiber, minerals, protein, and vitamins but replete with added sugar, trans-fat, sodium, and refined starch.

 Ultraproccessed foods are introduced at an early age.   ©Pixabay
Ultraproccessed foods are introduced at an early age. ©Pixabay

Ingredients in ultraprocessed foods also often include substances that are not normally used in cooking, such as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, flavor enhancers, artificial colors, and emulsifiers. Examples of these foods include candy and packaged snacks, bread and cereals, sugar-sweetened beverages, ready-to-heat pasta dishes and pizza, hotdogs, and chicken nuggets.

From a healthy-diet vantage point, the statistics are discouraging. From 1999 to 2018, the estimated percentage of energy from consumption of ultraprocessed foods increased overall from 51.4% to 67% while the percentage of total energy consumed from unprocessed or minimally processed foods dropped from 28.8% to 23.5%.

The most significant increase in consumption was for ready-to-heat and -eat mixed dishes (pizza, sandwiches, hamburgers, etc.), which jumped from 2.2% to 11.1%. However, the final tally of ultraprocessed foods making up the largest estimated percentage of energy for children in 2018 included grains, like manufactured breads and cereals (14.5%), and sweet snacks (12.9%).

Similar proportions of ultraprocessed foods were eaten by kids at school cafeterias.

The Highly Processed Dangers

In June 2022, Jacqueline Vernarelli, PhD, associate professor and director of the Master of Public Health program at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, reported disturbing news regarding the effects of ultraprocessed foods on young children. She found that children aged 3-5 who consumed higher quantities of ultraprocessed foods had poorer locomotor skills than children who ate less. Moreover, teens aged 12-15 who consumed more ultraprocessed foods showed lower cardiovascular fitness than kids of the same age that ate less, she said, citing results from a study for the American Society for Nutrition.

A variety of studies suggest that high intake of ultraprocessed foods promotes obesity and cardiometabolic risk factors in children.

"Our findings point to the need to educate families about cost-effective ways to reduce ultraprocessed food intake to help decrease the risk for cardiovascular health problems in adulthood," said Dr. Vernarelli. While highly processed foods may be convenient, research shows the importance of healthier snacks and meals, she added.

Ultraprocessed foos are often served at US school cafeterias.   ©KatarzynaBialasiewicz/iStock
Ultraprocessed foods are often served at US school cafeterias. ©KatarzynaBialasiewicz/iStock

Indeed, the childhood obesity rate has been steadily rising among US youth during the past twenty years, and there is increasing evidence that eating "junk foods" leads to excessive calorie intake and weight gain. A variety of studies suggest that high intake of ultraprocessed foods promotes obesity and cardiometabolic risk factors in children. Later, in adulthood, there are additional risks for cardiovascular diseases and cancers.

In addition to poor nutrient profiles, ultraprocessed foods may impact people’s glycemic response and satiety, thus adding to the obesity dilemma. Furthermore, animal studies have shown food additives such as emulsifiers, stabilizers, and artificial sweeteners are linked to adverse metabolic effects.

What To Eat—And Not to Eat 

The foods everyone should limit in quantity are those with added sugars (brown sugar, corn syrup, honey, etc.), saturated fats from meat and full-fat dairy products, trans fats from foods that have partially hydrogenated oils, and sodium.

Probably what not to eat—A deep-fried candy bar.   ©Xian/Wikimedia Commons
Probably what not to eat—a deep-fried candy bar. ©Xian/Wikimedia Commons

In general, a healthful diet should include nutrient-dense foods such as protein, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 is a free download from the US Department of Health and Human Services that shows what to eat and drink to meet nutrient needs, promote health, and help prevent chronic disease. It is organized by life stage, from birth through older adulthood, including women who are pregnant or lactating.

Sometimes eating healthier is as simple as swapping out the less healthy food choices for more nutrient-dense options. One of the easiest ways to help children is to make sure the home kitchen is stocked with whole foods and limited quantities of processed foods.

One of the easiest ways to help children is to make sure the home kitchen is stocked with whole foods and limited quantities of processed foods.

Here are some tips:

Sweet desserts may be one of the toughest foods to give up. But healthier food can still satisfy a sweet tooth. Try skipping the ice cream and have a bowl of fruits topped with creamy yogurt and crunchy nuts. Make it fun and let each person create their own personalized dessert cup.

Healthful baked treats can be made at home. Try a variety of tasty muffins that include whole grains and loads of good ingredients. They can be baked ahead for quick breakfasts, snacks, or lunchbox desserts.

Taco night is another great time to encourage kids to make healthy choices. Set up a tabletop buffet of lean meat or meat alternative, black and/or pinto beans, tomatoes, colorful bell peppers, avocado chunks or guacamole, shredded cheese, lettuce or spinach, healthy salsa and whole-grain tortillas. Encourage kids to choose at least five ingredients or five colors for their taco creation.


Sometimes it’s even OK to play with your food. "Ants on a Log" is a timeless favorite (a peeled banana or a stick of celery smeared with nut butter and topped with a line of raisins). Make a smiley or silly face with any food on the plate, or allow kids to be artful and create a snake or a mountain or a tree, and then eat their creation.

Get Them Involved

Encouraging kids to get involved in choosing healthy food can motivate them to eat healthier diets. Meal planning, grocery lists and shopping, food prep, and serving food can help them feel ownership of the process. Older kids can learn how to read nutrition labels and follow recipes to further fuel their healthful decision making.

Should power struggles arise over food, experts now advise not to force or bribe children to eat something. Instead, serve up small portions of everything at the meal and let kids ask for more.

At all costs, don’t prepare a special meal for a picky eater. Without making it a drama, encourage the child to stay at the table. Eventually, they might eat, and if not, healthful meals and snacks served at regular times each day will help ensure that a child who refuses a meal won’t miss nutrients.

When new foods are introduced, it’s a good idea to discuss the aroma, color, shape, and texture of the food. It may take several exposures to a new food before a child decides that the taste is good (or perhaps not good; after all, taste is subjective).

Fun, creative, and healthy.   ©Bubble Juice/Pixabay
Fun, creative, and healthy. ©Bubble Juice/Pixabay

And speaking of shapes, why not cut some foods into fun shapes with cookie cutters? Serve veggies cut in different shapes and have ready a favorite dip or sauce. As long as they eat some veggies, the dip isn’t really a concern.

To add fun to learning about nutrition, the US Department of Agriculture’s My Plate program has a page of activities for kids on balanced nutrition, including online games, printable activities, and challenges for eating well, being proactive about nutrition, and staying physically active.

When all the foods at the table are healthful, parents can sit back and let the kids make their own decisions. Kids that feel the power of choice may surprise adults with how they choose to fill their plates. And if adults model healthful eating and activity, children are more likely to do the same. Encouraging healthy choices at home and away from home can promote a lifetime of healthy eating.


*Julie Peterson is a freelance journalist based in the Midwest region of the U.S. who has written hundreds of articles on natural approaches to health, environmental issues, and sustainable living.

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