Hello Mommies and Daddies. Thank you for reading with me today. At happyhealthychildren.org, our goal is to provide you with scientific information you need to raise happy, healthy children. Today I want to talk to you about ultra-processed foods, what they are and why they are making so many children sick.
Perhaps a ridiculous question, but what is food?
In order to understand what ultra-processed foods are and why they are bad for us, we must first understand what nutrition is and why it is important to us. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, food is “material, usually of plant or animal origin, that contains or consists of essential body nutrients, such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, or minerals, and is ingested and assimilated by an organism to produce energy, stimulate growth, and maintain life”. While this seems logical and intuitive enough to many adults, countless numbers of people feed their family every day in a way that does not reflect this basic understanding of food.
A personal account
I had the opportunity recently to have lunch with a group of young children. One of the children asked me if I could help him open his Lunchable. I have seen Lunchables at the store before but have never unpacked one. What I found truly saddened me. Please understand that I am not trying to shame or snub people who feed their children Lunchables. To the contrary, my purpose of discussing this child’s lunch is to call attention to the harmful substances that many children are being fed, despite the fact that their parents are probably trying to provide them with a delicious and nourishing meal.
What I found in the Lunchable
Inside the Lunchable were two mini hotdog buns, two mini grayish-colored hotdogs, a packet of ketchup, a packet of mustard, a Capri Sun and Sour Patch Kids. Each of the items was wrapped in plastic packaging. Please know that I write this as someone whose children love hotdogs! But, like apples, hamburgers, rice, or any other food, parents must realize that not all hot dogs are created equally.
Below is the list of ingredients for the hotdog Lunchable container. I am also placing, for comparison, the list of ingredients in a package of organic hotdogs.
When you compare the two lists of ingredients, the first thing you may notice is that you can pronounce the names of all of the ingredients in the organic hotdogs. However, unless you are a chemist, you probably cannot pronounce the names of all of the ingredients in the Lunchables. Let me stipulate that I am not saying that organic hotdogs are the pinnacle of nutrition. Rather, my point is simply that, when you want to treat your children to something like a hotdog lunch, there are options, some of which are better, more nutritious and more delicious than others.
Lunchables are an example of ultra-processed foods
This sweet, young boy’s Lunchable was an example of ultra-processed food. A more comprehensive explanation of ultra-processed food is found in the NOVA food classification system. NOVA states that ultra-processed food refers to the “processing of industrial ingredients derived from foods by extruding, molding, reshaping, hydrogenation and hydrolysis. Ultra-processed foods generally also include additives such as preservatives, sweeteners, sensory enhancers, colorants, flavors and processing aids, but little or no food. The aim is to create durable, convenient and palatable, ready-to-eat products suitable to be consumed as snacks or to replace freshly prepared food-based dishes and meals”.
While this is a long explanation of what ultra-processed foods are, most of us who live in America today instinctively know what the definition means because we either see these ultra-processed foods at the grocery store or we actually eat them and feed them to our families.
What is wrong with eating ultra-processed foods?
As you see from the definition above, ultra-processed foods usually contain little to no actual nutrients. They are empty calories which can be pleasing to our palates but do not nourish our bodies. Worse yet, they are actually harmful to our bodies because of the artificial colorants, preservatives, sweeteners, etc, that they contain.
In fact, as you can see in the two journal articles below, people who eat a significant amount of ultra-processed foods have higher rates of obesity, type II diabetes and malnutrition.
Solutions to the problem of ultra-processed food and its negative effects on our families
So now that we know what ultra-processed foods are and why they are bad for the health and happiness of our families, let’s turn to solutions.
Some of us are better at avoiding ultra-processed foods than others. In a best-case scenario, you would live on your own farm, hunt and grow your own produce. Sadly, for most of us, that is not our reality. But, in terms of nutrition, we can get a lot closer to that than a pack of Lunchables.
Focus your grocery shopping
If you shop at a traditional grocery store, try to buy most of your food in the outer perimeter of the store. Typically, that is where you find fresh fruit, vegetables and meats.
Make sure to read the ingredients of each product you are considering buying. If you cannot pronounce the name of any of the ingredients or you are unsure of what specific plant or animal that ingredient came from, chances are that item is ultra-processed. Don’t buy it! It is not good for you.
Avoid foods that are packaged in heavy cellophane wrap. These are not fresh and will contain little to no actual nutrients.
Get back to preparing your own meals
Finally, don’t be afraid to cook for your family! We’ll talk more about this in an upcoming post. But, even if you have never cooked before, get started! If you grew up in a home where your parents made a homemade, healthy dinner for you every night, you probably fondly remember how great it smelled. Your children will love and remember the smell of your cooking as well!
Some people say cooking takes too much time in today’s day and age. But honestly, you can make a basic, healthy, homemade meal in 20 minutes. That is about the same amount of time it will take you to go out of your way to the local fast-food stop or even to heat up a cellophane-wrapped, premade meal. And I promise you, it will be worthwhile to you and your happy, healthy children.
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