Once you pop, you can’t stop!
"Once you pop you can’t stop!" was the slogan of Pringles for many years, and it worked. It is almost impossible to eat just one Pringle! However, recently, Pringles and food like it, called ultra processed food, have been heavily criticized for having negative impacts on school-aged children's health and well-being.
What is ultra processed food? There are several categories of food. Non processed food includes things like vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, eggs, food found in its natural state. Processed food is food that has undergone some kind of process, for example cooking is a process, where ingredients have been added or a process has been undertaken to create the food. Then we have ultra processed foods. They contain little to no whole foods. They are made from refined starches, sugars, fats, proteins that have been isolated from whole foods and reassembled into new products. They typically contain additives like flavours, colours, emulsifiers, preservatives that prolong shelf life but provide no nutrition. They often contain high amounts of sugar, salt and fat which make them hyper-palatable and even addictive to consume. Examples include sodas, snacks like chips, cookies, burgers, breakfast cereals, packaged breads, frozen pizza, hot dogs, chicken nuggets etc. They undergo several unappetising industrial processes like hydrogenation, hydrolysis, extrusion which alter whole foods significantly.
Now new research suggests these ultra-processed foods could be negatively impacting children's developing brains as well as their bodies.
Scientists analysed the dietary intakes and cognitive test performance of over 16,000 children aged 9-11. They found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with poorer scores on standardised tests of verbal and non-verbal reasoning abilities. Compared to children who ate the least amount of ultra-processed foods, those who ate the most had significantly lower scores equivalent to several months of academic progress. The link remained even after accounting for other lifestyle factors.
Why might these foods be so detrimental? Ultra-processed products are often high in sodium, added sugars, saturated fats, and artificial ingredients. They lack nutrients that support brain health such as fibre, vitamins, and minerals.
The addictive nature of processed foods could also play a role. Food companies engineer products to be hyper-palatable by triggering our brain's reward pathways in a way that whole foods do not. This could disrupt appetite regulation and encourage overconsumption.
Changes to the gut microbiome from these nutrient-poor diets may also harm cognition. A diverse microbiome supports brain development, while ultra processed foods have been shown to promote growth of detrimental bacteria.
As people’s brains are still developing dramatically through to around 25 it's crucial to fuel them well. Parents should aim for minimally processed whole foods at meals and avoid heavily processed snacks as much as possible. Obviously, the occasional burger or pizza will not harm but with so much pressure from marketing, making healthy choices can be challenging - but it could pay off in terms of our children's intellectual abilities down the road. Their futures depend on the choices we make for their diets today.