A recent news release by strategic consulting and market research firm BlueWeave Consulting reveals that the global processed snacks market was worth $390.3 billion in U.S. dollars in 2020. The market research firm reports that despite the growing adoption of healthy eating habits, the industry’s growth is projected to reach $493.8 billion by 2026. “One of the major factors driving the global market for processed snacks has been the shift in consumer eating habits,” they write.
This shift in eating habits and the health concerns it raises is not new. But it does seem to have been set aside, if not overwhelmed, by the other more pressing matters of the past couple of years. In that void has emerged what Stacey Rosenfeld, a Miami-based psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, describes to NPR as this pandemic-induced “buffet-style experience” where folks are noshing throughout the day, especially children. “All-day-long, unsupervised grazing became a habit in many households in the early days of the pandemic — even for trained experts,” she explained to NPR’s senior science and health editor Maria Godoy in an August report, citing her experience with her own twin seven-year-old boys.
It is well-documented that what health experts deem as unhealthy amounts of added sugar, sodium and fat have long been, and continue to be, an integral part of highly processed snacks. They are also present in items people don’t normally think of as sweetened, such as soups, bread and cured meats, to name a few. If not careful, people can easily consume excessive amounts of added sugar and not even know it.
As explained in a recent Harvard Health report, “sugar occurs naturally in all foods that contain carbohydrates, such as fruits and vegetables, grains, and dairy. Consuming whole foods that contain natural sugar is okay.” The problems occur when you consume “too much added sugar.” This refers to the sugar that food manufacturers add to products to increase flavor or extend shelf life.
Although the effects of sugar on heart health is not completely understood, Harvard Health states that consuming too much added sugar can raise blood pressure and increase chronic inflammation, both of which are pathological pathways to heart disease. In beverages, it also has the effect of “tricking your body into turning off its appetite-control system because liquid calories are not as satisfying as calories from solid foods.”
“Industrial processing, such as changing the physical structure and chemical composition of foods, not only gives them a longer shelf life but also a more appetizing taste,” Fang Fang Zhang, a nutrition and cancer epidemiologist at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, explains to NPR. “A purpose of doing this is to make them highly palatable,” and hard to resist.
Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, also warns against “being overzealous” in attempting to cut back on added sugar. It can backfire. “You may find yourself reaching for other foods to satisfy your sweet cravings, like refined starches, such as white bread and white rice, which can increase glucose levels, and comfort foods high in saturated fat and sodium, which also cause problems with heart health.”
With the snack food industry’s growth looking extremely healthy at a projected $493.8 billion by 2026, this is not so for all of us. And this is no small matter, but one that should be of major concern as we move ahead. It is especially true if you happen to be a kid. And the responsibility for tackling this problem shouldn’t only be on parents. It is a societal problem. It is a global problem.
“This widespread reliance on junk food is an increasing public health concern as the obesity rate has been rising steadily among U.S. youths for the past two decades,” writes NPR’s Xcaret Nunez. While the relationship between childhood obesity and ultra-processed foods is complex, “the authors of a 1999 peer-reviewed study published in the medical journal of the American Medical Association acknowledge that “cohort studies provide consistent evidence suggesting high intake of ultra-processed foods contributes to obesity in children and young adults.”
Even more concerning is the dietary relationship between diet and diabetes. According to a recent Reuters Health report and the findings of a newly released study funded by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention along with the National Institutes of Health, the number of young people with the most prevalent form of diabetes nearly doubled in the United States from 2001 to 2017.
“One in 10 Americans, or 34 million people, have diabetes in the United States,” reports Reuters’ Robin Respaut and Chad Terhune. “About 1.6 million people have type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease of unknown cause that requires insulin injections when the pancreas stops producing the hormone. Millions more have type 2 diabetes, a chronic condition in which the body either doesn’t produce enough insulin or doesn’t use it well.” It is further believed that the increasing prevalence of type 2 diabetes might well be caused by rising rates of childhood obesity.
As pointed out to NPR by Anna Lutz, a registered dietitian specializing in family feeding issues, weight is “an incredibly fraught topic” as well as an imperfect indicator of health. “As parents, a kid’s sudden weight gain can be hard to know how to tackle. The last thing we’d want is to set the stage for poor body image or eating disorders for our children. If we focus on weight, that can cause so many other problems.”
“We’ve survived this very serious time in our history,” says Lutz. “And if that meant that people gained more weight than they would have, it’s a body’s way of surviving.”
Dr. Sandra Hassink, medical director of the American Academy of Pediatrics Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight, says, “We have to show ourselves a little compassion and realize we’re going to work our way out of this, and it’s not going to happen with a snap of the fingers.”