How much real food are your kids actually getting?

Now here’s an easy meal for one: noodles teamed with vegetable oil, salt, flavour enhancers, maltodextrin, anti-caking agent, chicken powder, dried carrot and textured vegetable protein.

Or how about a fast family dinner like pasta with packet carbonara sauce – a mix of maltodextrin, cheese powder, yeast extract, corn starch, mineral salts, onion powder, bacon powder and vegetable oil?

Sandra Annisa feeds her 18-month-old daughter Zyra fruit for breakfast at her home in Mill Park.Credit:Aaron Francis

Little ones peckish between meals? Toddler snacks will hit the spot, like blueberry sticks made with rice flour, sugar, quinoa flour but not much actual berry: just six per cent blueberry powder.

Welcome to the world of ultra-processed foods, a category of products now occupying so much of Australia’s food supply that they contribute, on average, around 40 per cent of the kilojoules we consume.

While they might tickle the tastebuds, these foods are on the nose with researchers who’ve linked high intakes of these products to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease – and, just recently, a 29 per cent increased risk of bowel cancer in men.

We’ve eaten processed foods for centuries. Bread, cheese, pasta, rice, lentils, oats and nuts are examples of minimally processed foods that are part of a healthy diet, as are canned or frozen fruit and veg. But UPFs, like many breakfast cereals and packaged baked goods, sweet and salty snacks, energy bars, toddler milks and many convenience meals, are created by extreme processing that often takes whole foods apart and reassembles them in a different form – a form that the body handles differently, explains Jennifer McCann, a PhD student and lecturer at Deakin University’s Institute of Physical Activity and Nutrition.

She’s especially concerned about ultra-processed toddler foods.

“They often contain ingredients like fruit purees, fruit concentrates, and vegetable powders that sound healthy but are very different from the whole food they’re derived from – they mislead consumers into thinking these products are full of fruits and vegetables,” says McCann whose study last year found that 85 per cent of products marketed as toddler foods were ultra-processed.

“Fruit purees and fruit concentrates are often added to these products in such high concentration, minus the fibre, that they’re really just sugar, and should be labelled as such so consumers know what they’re buying. They’re not fruit anymore and they’re not digested the same as a whole price of fruit would be.”

Then there’s the effect of training tiny tastebuds to love sweeter, often softer foods, not broccoli and beans.

“Sweet, ultra-processed snacks can discourage kids from eating whole foods and that can track into adolescence and adulthood,” she says. “Toddler foods are aimed at children at a vulnerable age when they need exposure to a range of textures and flavours – that’s how you educate their palates to eat a variety of whole foods. But even when toddler foods contain vegetables, they’re often sweeter vegetables.”

We used to think the main health risks from highly processed food came from too much sugar, salt and fat, but other additives and even processing techniques themselves, may be harmful too, says Dr Priscila Machado, a research fellow with IPAN.

“There’s evidence that some emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners and some food colourings decrease levels of good microbes in the gut, for instance, and that this can lead to inflammation,” she says.

New French research has found an increased risk of heart disease among higher consumers of artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose. These sweeteners are in thousands of ultra-processed foods.

Melbourne mother Sandra Annisa is concerned about the amount of artificial ingredients her 18-month-old Zyra is consuming from pre-packaged foods.

“I want to limit the unknowns I’m giving to my baby,” she said.

She checks ingredient lists for any unfamiliar additives and knows which numbers and colours to avoid.

“I like to stick to things that have maybe four or five ingredients as opposed to 24 numbers and words that I don’t understand,” she said. While Annisa tries to limit the amount of pre-packaged foods she buys, she said it’s almost impossible for everyone to cut them out completely.

“In an ideal world, I’d love to buy everything organic, everything grass-fed, everything from the farmers market,” she said. “But we live in a world where things are fast-paced, you don’t always have time to stroll through supermarkets and make everything from scratch.”

Anna-Maria Boelskov is a mother of four children, the youngest of which is two-year-old Filippa. As a birth doula and naturopath in the Blue Mountains, she is increasingly concerned with the amount of additives in pre-packaged kids food.

“They don’t taste or mimic real food. It’s often sweeter [and] more of a smooth texture than what real food actually is,” she said.

“My concern is if I feed this to my babies then they’re going to get a skewed view on what food is meant to taste like.”

Boelskov says her clients find it hard to know what is in the food they are giving their kids, and that she is most concerned about the unknown effects on a child’s gut function and endocrine system.

As for processing techniques, baking or frying some foods at high temperatures can produce compounds called Advanced Glycation End Products – AGEs for short – that are linked to some chronic diseases, Machado says.

When processing takes whole foods apart and turns them into separate ingredients like fruit juice concentrates, hydrogenated oils and protein isolates, it ignores the fact that many nutrients and other compounds in foods don’t work alone to deliver health benefits – they need to interact with each other and enter the body intact.

“That’s why packaged foods need better labelling to show the degree of processing, not just levels of sugar, fat and salt,” Machado stresses. “The Health Star Rating doesn’t take food processing into consideration. Research here at Deakin found that three-quarters of ultra-processed food had a Health Star Rating of more than 2.5 stars. This creates a health halo around foods that aren’t healthy. ”

Without clearer labelling, how can you recognise highly processed foods?

“Look at the ingredient list on the back of the pack, and if it’s long, and there are names of ingredients you don’t understand, or ingredients you wouldn’t have in your kitchen it’s likely to be a UPF,” says McCann.

And let’s not forget that if you need to feed hungry toddlers in a hurry, there’s always a banana – no label reading required.

With Sasha Gattemayr

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