U.S. children are consuming less junk food, but it still dominates their diets

A recent analysis from researchers at UNC’s Global Food Research Program (GFRP) shows that, although U.S. children are consuming less junk food overall, their diets are still dominated by less healthy foods.

Such results show the importance of sustained policy discussions surrounding how foods and beverages are marketed to children – and those who care for them – as part of obesity-preventive regulations that can lead to better health outcomes and lower incidence of obesity-related disease later in life.

GFRP’s Elizabeth Dunford, PhD, assistant professor in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Department of Nutrition, is lead author of “Recent Trends in Junk Food Intake in U.S. Children and Adolescents, 2003–2016,” published April 23, 2020 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. GFRP’s Shu Wen Ng, PhD, associate professor and distinguished scholar in public health nutrition, and Barry Popkin, PhD, W. R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor, both faculty at the Gillings School, are coauthors on the paper.

The U.S. has no consensus on how to define junk food, but a Chilean model on what nutritional criteria meets the category of junk foods provides a way to measure this consumption using U.S. data. In 2016, the Chilean government used these guidelines to implement warning labels on their foods that are high in total sugar, saturated fat, sodium and calories, but proportionally lower in nutrients. Since Chile’s regulations, similar warning labels have been adopted in other countries.

For this study, researchers examined nutritional content of the food products children reported consuming in U.S. food intake surveys between 2003 and 2016. The team found a 10% decrease in the consumption of foods that could be classified as junk foods over that time period, with a significant decrease in mean intake of calories, total sugar, saturated fat and sodium.

Although the study found that junk food intake has decreased over 14 years, the data showed that diets of U.S. children and adolescents remained dominated by less-healthy foods, with a large proportion of calorie intake from junk foods. More than half of all saturated fat and sodium intakes were derived from junk foods, as was nearly 90% of sugar intake.

This is still a dangerous trajectory for U.S. children, says Dunford, and those who create nutrition policies can look to Chile as a model for what works.

“Chile has implemented the most comprehensive set of obesity-preventive regulations to date in the world, including strict regulations for the marketing of foods to children. With approximately two thirds of calories deriving from packaged food sources in the US, federal, state, and local governments and regulatory agencies developing statutory policies should look to strong examples such as the Chilean regulation as a starting point to address the diet quality of American children. Such policies may encourage industry to reformulate their products to be eligible for marketing, and in doing so improve the nutritional intake of US children and adolescents.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic lowering U.S. children’s access to school meals that are required to meet nutritional requirements for reimbursements, there is a need for more emphasis on meaningful policies to limit children’s exposure to junk foods while they are out of school, says Ng.

“These include exploring restrictions on unhealthy food marketing targeting children via various forms of media, such as television, digital media and social media, and ensuring that food assistance to U.S. families does not inadvertently promote junk foods.”

UNC’S Global Food Research Project (GFRP) is an arm of the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. GFRP develops in-depth longitudinal research, collaborating with partners across the globe, and providing technical assistance to universities, organizations, and governments on large-scale obesity prevention efforts.