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Children's health

19th Jul 2024

Study shows the impact of ultra-processed foods on Irish children’s health

Sophie Collins


The rise in consumption of ultra-processed foods is posing a significant threat to the health of Irish children

The issues can even begin from their time in the womb. 

A recent study published in The BMJ has shown “consistent evidence” linking higher exposure to ultra-processed foods with an increased risk of 32 adverse health outcomes.

These include cancer, major cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, mental health disorders, and premature death.

Ultra-processed foods include a wide range of products, like packaged baked goods, snacks, fizzy drinks, sugary cereals, and ready-to-eat meals. 

These products undergo multiple industrial processes and often contain additives like colours, emulsifiers, and flavours, which can be harmful to the body when consumed in large quantities.

Dr. Alex Richardson, Director of Food and Behaviour Research UK, spoke of the implications of these findings on Newstalk Breakfast.

He emphasises that dietary habits can influence children even before they are born. 

“The kind of diet that mum is eating, some of that will indeed filter through to the unborn child,” Dr. Richardson explained. 

“A sweet tooth can actually start being fed before you’re born – it is the critical period in brain development.”

Dr. Richardson also highlighted the detrimental effects of starting the day with a high-sugar breakfast. 

“It is setting them up beautifully for a blood sugar rollercoaster,” she noted. 

Rapid spikes and drops in blood sugar levels can lead to the release of insulin and stress hormones like adrenaline, causing fluctuations in mood, attention, and concentration throughout the day, she explained.

This phenomenon has even led to the creation of the term “hangry” to describe the irritability that accompanies hunger.

To address this issue, Dr. Richardson pushes for stronger measures, such as tobacco-style warnings on ultra-processed foods. 

“It’s not a step too far to be honest,” she said. 

She compared these foods to “chemical concoctions” with minimal actual food content and high levels of additives, designed to be hyper-palatable and addictive.

Dr. Richardson also compared sugar to other addictive substances, noting that while some people can consume it in moderation without becoming dependent, it still affects the brain’s reward pathways similarly to drugs of abuse. 

“You do get the withdrawal… but it’s more complicated than just one thing, it isn’t just the sugar,” she explained.

Ultimately, Dr. Richardson said the importance of moderation when it comes to consuming ultra-processed foods. 

Making more informed dietary choices means parents can help ensure their children receive the necessary nutrients for healthy development and avoid the long-term health risks associated with these foods.