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Study links ultra-processed foods to poor bone quality

Ultra-processed foods are back on the stand after an Israeli study linked consumption to poor bone health in children.

Alex Smolokoff

April 21, 2021

3 Min Read
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The COVID-19 pandemic has had myriad and wide-ranging effects on the way consumers think about personal health. This is especially true for the way consumers think about their children’s health. With COVID lockdowns and safety measures suddenly forcing many children to stay home for schooling for nearly a year, snacking and meals moved from school classrooms and cafeterias back into the home. This, in turn, has led to increased scrutiny on what exactly parents are feeding their children, and what effect that food and beverage has later in life.  

Recently, synthetic dyes commonly found in children’s food and beverage—think cereals, candy, juices and more—found themselves back in the public eye after a California Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessment (OEHHA) indicated some synthetic food dyes can cause or worsen behavioral problems in some children. Now, ultra-processed food (UPF)—what many often refer to as “junk” food—is on the stand again, after a recent report from Hebrew University of Jerusalem linked such products to poor bone quality in children (Bone Research. 2021;9[14]). According to a press release, the research “serves as the first comprehensive study of the effect of widely-available food products on skeleton development.”

Researchers conducted a six-week in vivo trial using young female rats (3-9 weeks old). According to the study authors, “This time frame extends from weaning to puberty and therefore represents the growth period before sexual maturation and GP [growth plate] closure in humans.” The rats were divided into two groups; a control group was fed a standard rat diet, while a second group was fed “a diet comprised of a typical UPF meal,” which was rich in fat and sucrose and included a caloric soft drink (CSD). The body weight and length of the rats, as well as femur and lumbar vertebra lengths, was measured before and after intervention.

The results of the study showed “total body and femoral lengths were significantly shorter in [the UPF + CSD] group than in the control group,” despite the former ingesting more total calories. This led researchers to determine, “These results demonstrated that [UPF] consumption stunts growth, but this is not due to caloric deficiency.”

In addition to stunting growth, the UPF group also saw lower bone quality.

“The trabecular bone parameters of the UPF + CSD group were inferior to those of the controls,” the authors stated. “The bone volume fraction (BV/TV) of the femora decreased significantly, from 35.54% to 19.17% and from 23.06% to 16.27% at 6 and 9 weeks of age, respectively.” The authors went on to state, “Furthermore, cortical bone analysis of the UPF + CSD group demonstrated severe deterioration compared to rats fed the control diet.”

“Even if we reduce fats, carbs, nitrates and other known harmful substances, these [ultra-processed] foods still possess their damaging attributes,” said Efrat Monsonego-Ornan, Ph.D. and one of the study’s authors. “Every part of the body is prone to this damage and certainly those systems that remain in the critical stages of development."

About the Author(s)

Alex Smolokoff

Editorial coordinator, Informa

After a career in sportswriting, Alex Smolokoff was on the editorial team at Informa Markets from December 2018 through spring of 2022, working on Food & Beverage Insider. In his free time, he enjoys watching his hometown Boston sports teams.   

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