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Tuesday 3 November 2020 10:31am

Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Centre researchers have published a study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which shows that NZ preschoolers derive nearly one half of their dietary energy from ultra-processed food.

Ms Louise Fangupo, the lead author for this publication, analysed dietary information from the POI study, which has studied more than 800 Dunedin children from birth over the last ten years. These data show that children at 12 months of age derived 45% of their energy intake from ultra-processed food, which increased to 51% by five years of age.

What are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods have been defined by the NOVA food classification system as “formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, that result from a series of industrial processes”.

These foods are typically energy-dense products which are high in sugar, unhealthy fats and salt. They are often low in dietary fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals. Common examples of ultra-processed foods are packaged snacks, carbonated drinks, reconstituted meat products, and confectionery.

Which ultra-processed foods are NZ children eating?

The ultra-processed food items that contributed most to the energy uptake of children aged 12 months to five years were breads, yoghurt, crackers, cereals, sausages and museli bars.

Some of these foods can be part of a healthy diet, as the term ultra-processed refers to the extent and purpose of the food processing, not necessarily its nutrient content or dietary quality. But Professor Rachael Taylor, co-Principal Investigator of the POI study, says that the extent of the contribution was unexpected:

"It was somewhat surprising that ultra-processed food made up such a substantial proportion of the energy intake of young children in New Zealand."

Professor Taylor says that prior to this current study, we have known very little about what young New Zealand children are eating. But that will change with the start of two new studies being undertaken by Professor Taylor and colleagues at the University of Otago, Massey University, and Victoria University of Wellington.

First Foods NZ and Young Foods NZ

EDOR researchers and colleagues have initiated 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 6 month to 3.9 year old children.

Associate Professor Anne-Louise Heath, Department of Human Nutrition and co-Principal Investigator for these two projects, explains that the objectives of these studies are to explore what, when, and how babies are eating, once they move from an exclusively milk diet to solid food.

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