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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.
That is according to new research by the University of Otago’s Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Research Centre, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Lead author Louise Fangupo said this was the first study of its kind of ultra-processed food involving very young children in New Zealand.
‘‘Until now nobody has investigated its contribution to the diets of very young New Zealand children,” she said.
Breads, yoghurt, crackers, cereals, sausages, and muesli bars were among the ultra-processed foods making the greatest contribution to young children’s diets.
Ultra-processed food was usually described as ‘‘inherently unhealthy’’ and had generally received a lot of attention in scientific and other literature recently.
Ultra-processed foods were typically energy-dense products that are high in sugar, unhealthy fats, and salt, while being low in dietary fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals.
However, Ms Fangupo cautioned that a food’s categorisation as ‘‘ultra-processed’’ referred to the extent and purpose of the food processing and was ‘‘not always a reliable indicator of its nutrient content or dietary quality’’.
Bread and crackers were considered acceptable under relevant nutrition guidelines, and might be served as part of meals or accompanying items such as sandwich fillings or dips, which were likely to contribute useful nutrients to children’s diets.
Ms Fangupo says she hoped parents would realise that while ultra-processed food often had a bad reputation, it was 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, but most wholegrain breads, many high-fibre breakfast cereals, most yoghurts, and infant formulas, were 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 said.
Ms Fangupo said 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.
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.
Ms Fangupo also said that the research results did not indicate any link between demographic factors and children’s ultra-processed food intake, she says.
Ultra-processed foods were often described in the literature as being ‘‘cheap’’, and 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.”
Centre director Prof Rachael Taylor, and Associate Prof Anne-Louise Heath, of the human nutrition department, 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.
The Otago study is titled ‘‘Ultra-Processed Food Intake and Associations With Demographic Factors in Young New Zealand Children’’ and the other authors are Jillian J.Haszard, Barry J.Taylor, Andrew R.Gray Julie A.Lawrence, and Rachael W. Taylor.