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I thought my kids ate healthy, home-cooked meals – then I counted their UPFs – inews

8 minutes, 52 seconds Read

I have two children aged 10 and 13 which means, of course, that I start every new school year with the same resolution. This, I tell myself earnestly, will be the year I send them off with hot, home-made, wholesome packed lunches. Gone will be the hastily slapped together ham sarnies. Goodbye too to emergency pitstops at Tesco express, to ward off post-school hanger with plastic-packed snacks. My children will be ultra-processed-food free. Their meals so pure that Gwyneth Paltrow will bow down to me. And then, of course, term actually starts.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will be uncomfortably aware of the research linking high consumption of ultra-processed foods to higher risk, for adults, of diseases ranging from hypertension to obesity via Type 2 diabetes and some cancers. The impact on children, however, has been less well documented. Until recently.

At the end of last year, the Soil Association published a report backed by Thomasina Miers, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and others, arguing persuasively that UFPs are putting them at higher risk of disease and warping the development of children’s appreciation for real foods, by trapping them in a self-perpetuating cycle of soft, sweet and artificially flavoured food.

My immediate response? Exhaustion. I already have plenty of reasons to panic about my children’s future wellbeing. Besides, we cook most of our suppers from scratch. We pay more than we can comfortably afford for the fancy kind of peanut butter, and a weekly loaf of locally-made sourdough. Still, how many UPFs sneak into their diets each week? How easy is it to identify them, how much does it matter, and do I really want to know?

I decided to note down everything the children eat in a week, and come clean with the experts. Taking the strictest possible definition, I fed the children a total of 18 UPFs across the week – averaging at least two a day.

I think back to what I ate day to day as a kid. My childhood memories are dominated by 80s birthday parties at McDonald’s and plastic toys hidden inside boxes of sugary cereal. By comparison, my own children’s enjoyment of processed food seems distinctly damped by the modern awareness of, and fixation with, nutrition. Can their diets really be worse?

“There’s no straightforward answer unfortunately,” says Rob Percival, head of food policy for the Soil Association. Government data on food consumption doesn’t delve into processing, leaving researchers grappling with the complicated task of retrospective analysis.

“What we do know is that UPFs are now saturating children’s diets. They make up 65 per cent of daily energy intake for under 14s, he explains – the highest level in Europe. Meanwhile, child obesity levels have increased from 15 per cent in 1993 to 28 per cent in 2019 and: “given the evidence linking ultra-processing to obesity and overweight, it seems plausible (or likely) that UPF are partially to blame.” Moreover: “a growing body of research is linking diets rich in ultra-processed foods with poorer health outcomes, including overweight, obesity, and metabolic disease.”

Hatties has two children aged 10 and 13 (Photo: Tony Buckingham)

Dr Saira Hameed, consultant endocrinologist, author of The Full Diet and mother of four young children supports this. “In my NHS obesity practice patients are presenting younger and younger, not just with serious weight issues but also with metabolic illnesses like hypertension and type 2 diabetes,” she says. She cannot definitely pin this on UPF consumption, she stresses, “but the association must be a possible factor.”

What to do? Weekday lunches, fed to my children by their schools, are largely out of my control. And this might be of concern. In 2022, research from the National Institute for Healthcare and Research found that on average, more than 75 per cent of calories across all school lunches came from UPFs.

Ultra-processed bread, snacks, puddings and sugary drinks were among the biggest contributors. Our school canteens often pose a problem, suggests Naomi Duncan, CEO of Chefs in Schools, a charity at the forefront of championing, and creating, healthier school food cultures. Most include: “a fully legally compliant, mostly made-on-site menu of hot main meals, but alongside these are all the cheese-laden, or beige and ultra-processed snack food that we know will be chosen instead.” This sounds dispiritingly familiar to me, and Duncan also points towards the recent Food Foundation report which examined what teenagers spend their free school meal allowance on: “spoiler alert, it was rarely vegetables, unless you’re counting the tomato sauce on pizzas”.

I could, and often do, make packed-lunches. But since I am disorganised and time poor, cheese sandwiches loom large in our repertoire, leaving a choice between hot and highly-processed lunches, or ones that are home-made but cold and nutritionally narrow.

The problem, however, likely began far before I sent them off to school. According to a 2022 First Steps Nutrition Trust survey, up to half of baby meals, close to three quarters of finger foods and one in five baby drinks could be labelled UPF.

Mine were sucking on pouches and gumming on corn puffs well before their first birthdays. I bought the organic ones though, so we must be in the clear? I bring the ingredients up online, to check. What is Thiamin? And does its inclusion mean that – despite best intentions – I inadvertently blighted their futures with UPFs?

In the new UPF bible, Ultra-Processed People, Chris van Tulleken suggests that: “if it’s wrapped in plastic and has at least one ingredient that you wouldn’t usually find in a standard home kitchen, it’s UPF”. I scroll through my children’s food diary for the week. At first glance, it seems … okay? But while the jam they ate with Monday’s breakfast is made from familiar things, there’s one exception: a “gelling agent”.

I made my son a packed-lunch of left-over lamb (fine), sourdough (fine), lettuce, (ditto) but also a shop-bought hummus containing the preservative potassium sorbate. That night we cooked a home-made curry. But we ate it with mango chutney that, I now see, contained “acetic acid”. Finally, we shared some chocolate – Tony’s Chocolonely, famously slave free and ethically above -board. But wait! That contains soya lecithin, ominously described as an “emulsifier”. So did every meal of the day actually contain UPFs?

It depends who you ask, explains Dr Federica Amati, clinical nutritionist and author of the forthcoming book Everybody Should Know This. For a start, some of these ingredients are unfamiliar only in name. Take the mango chutney: “Acetic acid is just vinegar.” Soya lecithin, meanwhile, is a relatively innocuous part of the soy plant. “Do I want to add loads to my diet? Probably not. But am I going to rule out a food because that’s the only artificial ingredient? Probably not.”

If the rules are unclear, and reading them less so, how can parents possibly navigate this new food landscape? Amati is reassuring. She suggests two good questions to ask when contemplating UPFs. First: “Instead of what?” Take the hummus: “If you could make it at home, that’s always better. But if you wouldn’t, and are considering cutting the hummus from his sandwich instead, the question is: instead of what? If you’re taking the hummus out, or replacing it with something that has a lower nutritional value, then he’d be missing out on quite a good source of fibre and protein.”

Her second question is: “with that?” On Wednesday we ran out of bread and nipped to the supermarket for a loaf. Though wholemeal, it was laden with gelling agents, emulsifiers and more. Not ideal, says Amati. Nonetheless: “it’s really important to think about what else that food is offering.” Drinking a fizzy drink rarely prompts you to consume anything healthy with it, making them among the worst UPFs. “On the other hand, if high-fibre supermarket bread is a vehicle for nutritious banana and good quality peanut butter, then it has some positives.”

The question proves a pertinent one for many of our week’s meals. Friday night was irredeemable. My only defence is that the week had been long, a teenage band was rehearsing in the sitting room, and supermarket pizza and coca cola seemed the only sensible solution.

On other evenings, though, UPFs sneaked in through the backdoor: as ketchup, mayo or hot sauce the kids added to home-cooked meals. This is not unusual, Amati suggests: “When you look at UPF contributions – sodas come top and condiments second.” But when it comes to kids, it is a balancing act. The ketchup may mean they ate more vegetables. So: “try to reduce the ketchup gradually, but don’t fixate on removing it if it’s going to remove the broccoli.”

My conversation with Amati suggests one final question, worth asking: to what end? Some artificial additives are added either to make a food taste highly palatable (like artificial sweeteners) or look more tempting (gelling agents or colourants, say). “Those types are the worst because they’re there only to make you eat more of the product. They don’t offer anything nutritionally,” she explains. On the other hand: “if there’s added fibre, or to some extent even ascorbic acid which is Vitamin C, then these are artificial in the sense that it wouldn’t normally be there in that food, but at least they are trying to serve some purpose.”

We are all – researchers, campaigns and consumers – on a steep UPF learning curve, she suggests. As we learn what different additives are, and what they do, we will be able to make more informed personal choices about which to put in our baskets and which we draw the line at.

In the meantime, both she and Percival stress that parents should not beat themselves up. “My advice would be to focus on the basics – avoiding classic junk foods, and trying to pack lots of veg and plant proteins into your family diet,” summarises Percival. “Beyond this, you might focus on healthier snacking as a priority. It won’t be possible for most people to eliminate UPF entirely – and there’s no sound reason to do so. The evidence suggests that it’s the overall quality and pattern of the diet that matters, so try to make sure that UPF are in the minority. And remember that there are loads of healthy and convenient processed foods – from frozen peas to canned beans, tinned fish, tofu and so on.”

Most importantly: “Don’t ever feel ashamed about feeding your kids ultra-processed foods,” he says. “If anything, feel angry  that they’re so omnipresent, and ask your MP or local representative to do something about it.”

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