CHILDREN’S food in Scotland, and throughout the UK, is a disgrace. Our tender babes and tots eat the worst diet of any European nation.

How long can we remain indifferent to the fact that we’re routinely serving them food-like industrial concoctions that gravely undermine their health for life?

This peculiarly Anglo-American form of child abuse is widely tolerated because it is so commonplace. In the UK, we seem strangely untroubled by the cynical factory horrors that lurk in the children’s food aisles, simply because they are so ubiquitous.

Every child eats this stuff here – at school, at a friend’s house, at the soft play centre, everywhere – so it must be okay. Safety in numbers, we think. The Government wouldn’t let these products be sold if they were really bad for us, would it?

We need a bazooka to shock us out of this complacency, and a new study from researchers at Imperial College in London makes such alarming, yet utterly believable, reading that it ought to do just that.

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They have followed 9000 children in the west of England who were born in the early 1990s, from the age of 7 until the age of 24.

Using food diaries, researchers recorded what the children ate and drank at age 7, 10 and 13 and took regular measurements of how they were developing.

This is, to my knowledge, the biggest long-term study of children’s diet and health to date, the only one that focuses specifically on the deadly role of feeding children so much ultra-processed food (UPF). The results only confirm my worst suspicions.

I’ll let Kiara Chang, Research Fellow and first author on the paper, break the bad news, but succinctly put, the higher the proportion of UPFs children consume, the greater their risk of becoming overweight or obese, and the more blighted their health prospects.

“During the 17 years of follow up, we saw a very consistent increase in all measures of unhealthy weight among children who consumed greater amounts of ultra-processed foods as part of their diet. Their BMI, weight gain, and body fat gain was much quicker than those children consuming less ultra-processed foods. We actually see it making a difference from as young as 9 years old.”

It’s such a stark difference. By the age of 9, fortunate children who have been brought up mainly on traditional, home-cooked food, made from scratch, using minimally processed ingredients, will have a healthy, normal body weight.


Their less fortunate counterparts, meanwhile, those raised on a diet front-loaded with ultra-processed products, are already travelling on a sad conveyor belt to ill-health.

Ultra-processed food now accounts for more than 40% of a typical child’s diet by weight, or more than 60% if you take calories as your measure. The Imperial team has also uncovered a “dose-response relationship”. This means that it's not only that children who eat the most ultra-processed foods have the worst weight gain, but also that the more they eat, the worse this response gets.

By 24 years of age, the highest consumers of UPF in the study weighed 3.7 kg more and measured an extra 3.1 cm round the waist.

This study is just more evidence of the devastating effect of industrial food processing, that is, formulations of food substances often modified by chemical processes and then assembled into ready-to-consume hyper-palatable food and drink products using flavours, colours, emulsifiers and other cosmetic additives – on our children’s health.

The researchers argue that radical, effective public health actions are needed urgently to reduce children’s exposure to, and consumption of, UPFs. Amongst other things, they want national dietary guidelines updated to emphasise preference for fresh or minimally processed foods and avoidance of ultra-processed foods, in line with guidelines developed in Brazil, Uruguay, France, Belgium and Israel.

This demand ought to be a no-brainer, but it will meet a wall of resistance.

Supermarkets know that ultra-processing adds value to commodity ingredients and therefore makes for bigger retail profits.

Our erstwhile public health establishment should be free from commercial influence, and actively protecting our children. But it has let them down really badly, by commission as well as omission.

The apparently august committees that frame food guidelines in the UK, and Scotland, are riddled with vested interests. Even those members who aren’t blatantly representing corporates with UPF portfolios are often recipients of research funds from such companies.

Amongst the less conflicted government advisers, too many follow an appeasement principle. It is unrealistic, they argue, to wean the UK of its addiction to childhood junk. That ship has sailed. Instead they politely request that the UPF barons “reformulate” their products to create “healthier” versions.

That’s missing the point entirely.

They aid and abet the nation’s ill-health by propping up the pernicious notion that if only parents become savvy shoppers, they can cherry pick from the children's food shelves something approaching a healthy diet.

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We should see this strategy for the cowardly, or worse dishonest, nonsense that it is. Government advisors are dumping responsibility they should be shouldering onto the shoulders of confused parents who have been actively hoodwinked and waylaid at every turn by misleading marketing claims.

What a failure there has been in conveying useful, effective eating advice to the public from the dietetic community. They bamboozle the public with a plethora of familiar messages: count calories; reduce fat; fill your plate with starchy foods. All of these are wrong and best ignored.

And they’ve been trotting out this bankrupt advice for decades just as the real world evidence belies it.

One clear and simple four-word phrase encapsulates what parents need to know: avoid ultra-processed food. If you need it in one word: Cook. Prepare fresh home cooked food for your children, as we used to do traditionally.

But our pathetic government food advisers can’t bring themselves to say them. Why? To do so would be an admission that they’ve been mis-advising us all for decades.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.