Public Health Nutrition Editorial Highlight: ‘Consumption of ultra-processed foods and body fat during childhood and adolescence: a systematic review’ Authors: Caroline Santos Costa, Bianca Del-Ponte, Maria Cecília Formoso Assunção and Iná Silva Santos discuss their research below.

Consumption of ultra-processed food is a risk factor for increasing weight or body mass index among adolescents or adults. It now seems that it also affects the body fat in children and adolescents. A team of researchers from the Post-graduate Program in Epidemiology, Federal University of Pelotas, Brazil, have systematically reviewed the current literature regarding this relation. The association between consumption of ultra-processed food and body fat has largely been reported in the article from Public Health Nutrition. The results are from 26 studies that evaluated healthy children and adolescents.

Over the last three decades, modifications to how food is produced have been observed, characterizing an “obesogenic” environment, with a high level of food processing. A recent food classification (NOVA) based on the extent and purpose of industrial food processing has divided foods into four groups: unprocessed or minimally processed food; processed culinary ingredients; processed food; and ultra-processed food. The last comprises a group of industrial formulations that are manufactured using several ingredients and a series of processes. Most of these products contain little or no whole food. They are ready-to-consume or ready-to heat, which makes them easily accessible and convenient. However, they have very low nutritional quality and their consumption tends to limit consumption of unprocessed or minimally processed food.

The articles included in this review looked at groups of ultra-processed foods (such as snacks, fast food, junk food and convenience food) or specific ultra-processed foods (soft drinks/sweetened beverages, sweets, chocolate and ready-to-eat cereals). Consumption was generally evaluated by means of food frequency questionnaires or food records; and body composition, by means of double indirect methods (bioimpedance and skinfolds).

To the best of the knowledge of the authors, this is the first systematic review addressing the association between consumption of ultra-processed food and body fat levels among children and adolescents. The authors highlight that the use of a standardized food classification, such as NOVA, which makes it possible to consider the level of food processing, is much needed, in order to uncover the role of such foods in obesity epidemics and to enable comparability between the findings of upcoming studies. Investigations on consumption of ultra-processed food during childhood have gained importance, because the dietary habits acquired over this period tend to be kept throughout life, which can influence the prevalence of obesity in this population.

The full article  ‘Consumption of ultra-processed foods and body fat during childhood and adolescence: a systematic review’ published in the Ultra Processed Foods themed issue in Public Health Nutrition is available to download for free.

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