How Processed Food Affects Kids - And What to do About it

By Dr. Brittany Blockman, MD, MA, FAAP

As a parent in America, you're likely aware of how popular processed foods are for both you and your kids. From breakfast cereals to soft drinks, many foods targeted at kids have added sugar, artificial coloring, and other food additives. While reading a nutrition facts label may be overwhelming with all of the added ingredients, have you ever wondered if the food products you're feeding your children are impacting their behavior, mood, or overall health?

Why Are So Many Foods Processed?

Processed foods are, by definition, any food that has been changed from its naturally occurring state. In fact, almost every food you eat has been processed in some way before you consume it. Food processing helps to both extend the shelf life of food and prevent harmful bacteria from growing in your food before you can eat it.

While the initial purpose of processing food has some benefits, highly processed foods have taken over our grocery shelves and made healthy eating much harder than it used it be. It's important to understand the different levels of processed foods when shopping so you can choose foods that have higher nutritional quality.

Understanding Levels of Processed Foods

The best way to understand the different levels of processed foods is to look at the NOVA food classification. NOVA food classification divides foods into four different categories:

  • unprocessed or minimally processed foods
  • processed culinary ingredients
  • processed foods
  • ultra processed foods and drinks

Knowing the difference in these four levels of processed foods is crucial for making sure you're giving your kids, and yourself, a healthy diet.

Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods

The first group of processed foods includes foods that have only gone through small changes before you consume them. Typically, these foods have only gone through a process that is meant to extend their shelf life, while maintaining their nutritional quality. Minimally processed foods won't have any added salt, sugar, fat, or anything that changes the nutritional quality of the food.

Some common examples of these foods include:

  • roasted nuts without added salt
  • whole grain oats or wheat
  • frozen vegetables and fruit without added ingredients
  • natural fruit juice without added sugars
  • fresh or frozen cuts of meat such as chicken, beef, or fish

The foods in this category have kept their natural nutrients. Most of these foods are in their natural state, but may be frozen of chilled in order to maintain freshness.

Processed Culinary Ingredients

Processed ingredients are food products that are taken from natural foods in processes such as crushing, grinding, and pressing. These food additives are put into the foods you eat in order to season them or to cook foods or create baked goods. As long as these ingredients are used in moderation with minimally processed foods, they can be a part of your diet without causing health concerns.

Common food products in this category include:

  • oils made from foods like olives, avocados, corn, or sunflower
  • cane or beet sugars
  • butter
  • maple syrup
  • corn starch

When adding these ingredients from this NOVA classification to minimally processed foods, you can still have a balanced meal.

Processed Foods

Foods in this category are ones that have two or three ingredients. Typically, a minimally processed food has been made with one or two ingredients from the second group (butter, salt, etc.) to make the food either taste better or have a longer shelf life.

Popular examples of processed foods include:

  • canned fish
  • canned vegetables that were made using salt, brine, or vinegar
  • meats like beef jerky or bacon
  • canned fruits in sugar syrup

Eating these foods can be healthy if they are only part of your diet and not making up a large majority of it. However, the fourth and final classification is one that can cause the most concern.

Ultra-Processed Foods and Drinks

The foods in this category are heavily processed foods that food manufacturers have created by combining large amounts of food derivatives from or are made of ingredients that were created in a laboratory and deemed safe for human consumption.

When it comes to ultra-processed foods, you will find little to no ingredients that are minimally processed. Instead, you'll find ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, artificial food dyes, saturated fat, and "added flavors" on the food label among other ingredients that can cause concern.

Common foods in this category include:

  • breakfast cereals
  • soft drinks
  • pre-prepared meals (often frozen or canned)
  • chocolate milk
  • packaged baked goods

When you consume an ultra-processed food, you're allowing your body to take in food that isn't in its natural form. While these foods may seem like they're just packaged to be more fun and flavorful, there are many concerns when it comes to your kids consuming these foods regularly.

Why Eating Processed Foods Is Bad

When you eat processed foods, you're not consuming food that is part of a healthy diet. Instead, you're eating food that has many artificial ingredients, which can cause many health concerns as well as behavioral problems for your children. It's important to know why processed foods are so concerning so you can make healthier decisions for your children.

Health Concerns with Processed Foods

The biggest known fact about eating processed foods is that they typically have low nutritional value. This lack of value shows up when you look at the nutrition facts label. Processed foods often have high calorie counts, high sodium, saturated fat, and high cholesterol. These can cause high blood pressure and can even raise your cancer risk.

Food Additives

Another big concern about processed food is all of the added ingredients. A perfect example of concerning additives is artificial dyes and flavors.

While the FDA has reviewed artificial food dyes as recently as 2019 and deemed them as “safe” for consumption, public interest has raised the many concerns about artificial coloring and the affects they have on our children.

While preservatives and food dyes may be approved by the FDA, there's concern that they may be cancer-causing substances approved for our children to ingest. Not only that, but highly processed foods may include artificial food dyes and preservatives that are affecting our children's overall wellbeing.

Why Artificial Food Dyes Are so Concerning

The nutrients we get from food is one of the foundations of our health. When we feed our children foods that have artificial dyes instead of those with natural colors, we may be hurting them more than helping. So what's the deal with artificial dyes and how do they affect our kids?

Some food dyes have been connected to health issues when consumed too much or too often. An example of this is red dye #3 which has been connected to an increased risk of thyroid tumors and other thyroid issues, including cancer risk.

There have been many studies in recent years looking at how artificial food dyes affect children's behavior and ability to focus at school or in their daily lives. Many parents report behavioral issues in their children after ingesting artificial dyes, even when their child doesn't have ADHD or other attention issues.

In fact, over half of the children tested in a variety of research found significant changes in behavior after eating processed food that included artificial food dyes. This is incredibly concerning if you have a child with ADHD, but is something all parents should be aware of.

When it comes to considering the artificial food dyes your children are consuming, it's important to remember these facts about them:

  • Artificial dyes have no health benefits or nutritional value.
  • Food dyes are meant to appeal to children - they're fully a marketing tactic.
  • It's easy to consume a high amount of artificial dyes because they are in many products you wouldn't expect, including toothpaste, medication, and even body care products.
  • These dyes have been shown to have a negative impact on behavior and focus abilities in children.

How to Make Smart Choices About Processed Food

With all these facts about processed food, it can feel overwhelming to try to watch how much your kids are eating. Fortunately, there are some straightforward ways to eat better and more naturally. Your kids' health will improve and you'll have more peace of mind about what you're allowing your children to eat.

Eat Whole Grain Foods

Whole grains have higher fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals than processed grains. Processed grains often have added sugar and have often lost a lot of their natural vitamins and minerals. When you're eating whole grains, you're lowering your chances of heart disease and stroke.

Easy changes to make include swapping white bread for whole grain bread and choosing whole wheat pasta the next time you're making an Italian dish.

Make Your Own Snacks

While replacing whole meals can feel intimidating, picking healthy options for snacks is an easy place to start. Consider making your own granola bars, nut butter, and fruit snacks instead of buying them at your local big box store.

When you're making your own snacks, you can be confident you're avoiding artificial dyes, corn syrup, added sugars, and saturated fat that other foods on the shelf are often packed with. Keeping your snacks as close to their natural state as possible helps your kids eat a healthy diet.

Eat Fresh

When you're planning your weekly meals, try to add fresh fruits and vegetables into as many meals as possible. Adding green vegetables as side dishes can help your kids have more vitamins and beta-carotene, which can help prevent health issues as they get older. Having fresh fruit on hand makes it much easier to grab that as a snack instead of a bag of chips. Buying fresh is a great way to keep your diet as minimally processed as possible.

It's also a good idea to purchase fresh meat instead of processed meat when you can. The less processed meat is, the less likely it is to have additives. If possible, see if you can find a local farm or ranch that processes and sells their meat so you can feel good about where your meat came from.

Check the Labels

The truth is, it's really hard to never buy processed food. When the need arises, it's important to read the food label before purchasing any food that's been processed. Typically, the more ingredients that are listed on the label, the more processed a food is.

Ingredients are listed based on how much of each one is in the food. Looking at the first three ingredients of a food product can give you a good idea of how healthy or processed a food is.

It's also helpful to look at the nutrition facts and see the percentage of the daily values for a serving size. Steer clear of foods with high saturated fat, sodium, or added sugars; these are good signs that the food is heavily processed. Instead, look for other foods that have higher vitamins and minerals included to get the best nutrition out of your processed foods.

Buy Organic

While buying organic foods won't guarantee they went through minimal food processing, it can guarantee a certain standard of the ingredients used. For example, the FDA doesn't allow artificial food dyes in organic foods. If your kids are stubborn about giving up their processed food, consider buying items like organic breakfast cereals or red and processed meat to help ease them into the changes.

Drink Water

A big change that many of us can make is cutting out processed drinks from our diet. Instead of drinking soft drinks, sugary fruit juices, sports drinks, or other commercially made drinks, try replacing as many daily drinks as possible with water. Not only is water great for your health, but it will also help cut down on the added sugars and food dyes you and your children may be consuming.

If you're not a fan of plain water, consider sparkling water or even adding fruits or vegetables to your water to change the flavor.

Watch Your Food Preparation

When you can, prepare your own food so you know what ingredients are in it. However, if you're going out to eat at a restaurant or someone's home, pay attention to how the food is prepared. Food preparation is a step that can add concerning ingredients like salted butter, oils with added ingredients, or even added sugar. Knowing how food is prepared can help you avoid ultra-processed food even when you aren't home.


If you're concerned about your child's behavior, attention, or health in general, it's vital to consider the foods they're eating. When we consume processed foods, we're putting our health at risk while also ingesting ingredients that aren't natural. These foods can include added sodium and sugar while losing their naturally occurring vitamins and minerals.

When you're planning meals and snacks for your family, look for minimally processed meats, vegetables, and fruits. Consider buying as many fresh foods as you can and choosing foods that have minimal ingredients when buying pre-packaged. While it can take some time and diligence, the added fiber, vitamins, and minerals in your child's diet will make it all worth it!


Similar Articles

Healthy Baby Secrets: Proactive Practices & Nutrients to Enhance Your Developing Baby's Health Prenatally

Brittany Blockman, MD, MA, FAAP

My Top 5 Tips to Optimize Your Growing Baby’s Health Prenatally

Brittany Blockman, MD, MA, FAAP

Popular Tags







By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.