Promoting ultraprocessed junk foods to kids: what’s the harm?

March 5, 2024

Kim Anastasiou is a Researcher at the University of Adelaide and Columbia University, and an executive board member of the advocacy organisation Healthy Food Systems Australia.

Promoting ultraprocessed junk foods to kids: what’s the harm?

Junk food advertising comprises between 41-71% of all television adverts shown within peak television viewing periods for Australian children1 and represents only one of many advertising avenues available to the food industry. As a result, children as young as 3 recognise junk food brands2 or ultra-processed foods, as they are increasingly being referred to in the academic literature.

Ultra-processed foods are defined as ‘formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, that result from a series of industrial processes’ 3. They are able to be spotted in a number of ways: they are usually packaged and contain lengthy, often unrecognisable lists of ingredients, and often contain health claims on the front of their packets (which tend to serve marketing purposes rather than indicate the true healthfulness of a product). You can think about them as foods that you can’t cook from scratch at home, or those that would be unrecognisable to your grandmother (or perhaps great-grandmother, depending on your age). Common examples include soft drinks, breakfast cereals, muesli bars, commercial breads, store bought cakes, ice-creams, chocolates, pre-prepared meals, instant noodles and many processed meats such as commercial sausages.

Ultra-processed foods are, in many ways, a logical endpoint of our efficient and increasingly corporatised food system. Efficiencies in the agricultural sector have led to huge benefits for addressing hunger and reducing the amount of land required to produce a set quantity of food. Unfortunately, the pendulum has, in many cases, swung too far with substantial swathes of land being dedicated to monoculture farming and industrial livestock production. This way of farming degrades the environment and ultimately is linked to a loss of diet diversity which has substantial implications for health. In a world where 75% of the world’s foods stem from just 12 plant and 5 animal species4, manufacturers have become creative in the ways that they differentiate their e.g. wheat-based product from another company’s wheat-based product. One way they address this is by ultra-processing and packaging their product so that consumers receive the perception of diversity and choice, when in reality the same few ingredients are being used in slightly different processing and ingredient combinations. We then land where we are today: a world where ultra-processed foods comprise around 40% of the Australian diet5.

The high consumption rates of ultra-processed foods is problematic because they are associated with a variety of poor health outcomes including Type 2 Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, gut dysfunction, cancer and even premature death6. In addition, ultra-processed foods are responsible for around one-third of Australians diet-related environmental impacts including greenhouse gas emissions, cropland use, water scarcity, pesticide footprints7-10. In fact, in Australia, ultra-processed food-related environmental impacts are on-par with the impacts stemming from the consumption of meat and dairy. Common ingredients found in ultra-processed foods have also been linked with environmental disasters. For example, many ultra-processed foods are heavily reliant on the palm oil industry, which is directly responsible for the destruction of rainforests critical for our planets ecology and stability. Manufacturers of these products have also been linked with labour rights issues in their supply chains11.

So if they’re so bad, why do we continue to eat so much ultra-processed food?

To answer this question, we need to consider the core purpose of ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods are designed for cost minimisation and profit maximisation12. For example, ingredients are chosen based on where they are cheapest to produce, process, re-process, process again and then package. Hence the labour rights and environmental issues. Ultra-processed foods are also designed in ways that increase palatability (adding fat, sugar, salt, and flavour enhancers), decrease satiety (ultra-processed foods are often low in fibre and protein, and ultra-processing itself breaks down the food structure, making products softer and thus increasing consumption speed), durable (the shelf life of a ultra-processed food is lengthy, meaning that it can be consumed anywhere, at anytime, and transported to every corner of the globe), accessible (due to the incredible effort that companies put into their supply chains, and the durability of the product), cheap (made from cheap ingredients, using economies of scale and supported by various subsidies around the world) and the final golden ticket: they are packaged, branded and thus can be heavily marketed12.

Fixing this cycle is challenging. There are many forces at play driving the production and consumption of ultra-processed foods. Many experts are now calling for a ‘radical food system transformation’, involving changing the types of foods we grow and how we grow them, which would enable us to reduce our reliance on ultra-processed foods due to a wider availability of varied crops and livestock species. In order for this to be successful, the energy and resources put into supporting the availability, accessibility and marketing of ultra-processed foods would need to be shifted to supporting the equitable access and desirability (e.g. via marketing) of minimally processed foods.

I agree with these experts: a deep re-shaping of food systems is greatly needed. Regulation on food safety should consider long-term health outcomes, not just immediate health risks. Agricultural subsidies and government-funded research and development into agrifood systems should consider the types and quantities of crops and livestock species that can form a foundation to sustainable and healthy diets. Marketing reforms are also needed to protect our children from the health harms of frequent consumption of ultra-processed foods and set them up for healthy life habits.

Despite the many promises of the food industry to improve the food system, we know that self-regulation doesn’t work13. As with any industry (the media, for example), passing the role of regulation onto those who often actively benefit from avoiding such regulation, is widely viewed by activists and scholars to be ineffective. Many scholars are also concerned that corporate social responsibility initiatives are ineffective and ultimately seek to legitimise extractive and harmful industries. At the end of the day these companies are held accountable by their shareholders, so economic outcomes reign supreme.

But there is room for hope. Countries in Central and South America have had great success in introducing major reforms. Chile has become a country of particular attention because of its success in banning advertising of ultra-processed food during child-focussed TV, digital media and cinema viewings. This was coupled with the removal of all cartoons from food packaging, the addition of warning labels to products high in fat, salt or sugar, and the banning of ultra-processed foods in schools. Unsurprisingly, the diets of children have improved14. These are things for Australia to take note of in the government’s upcoming review of options to restrict unhealthy food advertising to children.

Chile has demonstrated that marketing, and marketing bans, have a huge role to play in improving the diets of children. But in order to be sustained across a lifetime these changes need to be supported by broader reforms across the food system. Reforms that address what is produced, how, where and by whom. None of this can be achieved by dietitians, or agricultural scientists, or media experts alone. Ultimately, reaching across boundaries and finding shared goals will be critical for this fight. A fight for our health, our children’s health, and that of the planet.


  1. Smithers, L.G., Haag, D.G., Agnew, B., Lynch, J. & Sorell, M. Food advertising on Australian television: Frequency, duration and monthly pattern of advertising from a commercial network (four channels) for the entire 2016. Journal of paediatrics and child health 54, 962-967 (2018).
  2. McAlister, A.R. & Cornwell, T.B. Children’s brand symbolism understanding: Links to theory of mind and executive functioning. Psychology & Marketing 27, 203-228 (2010).
  3. Monteiro, C., et al. Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them. Public Health Nutr 22, 936-941 (2019).
  5. Machado, P.P., et al. Ultra-processed food consumption and obesity in the Australian adult population. Nutrition & Diabetes 10, 39 (2020).
  6. Elizabeth, L., Machado, P., Zinöcker, M., Baker, P. & Lawrence, M. Ultra-Processed Foods and Health Outcomes: A Narrative Review. Nutrients 12, 1955 (2020).
  7. Ridoutt, B.G., Baird, D., Anastasiou, K. & Hendrie, G.A. Diet Quality and Water Scarcity: Evidence from a Large Australian Population Health Survey. Nutrients 11(2019).
  8. Ridoutt, B.G., Anastasiou, K., Baird, D. & Hendrie, G.A. Cropland footprints of Australian dietary choices. Nutrients 12, 1212 (2020).
  9. Ridoutt, B., Baird, D., Navarro, J. & Hendrie, G.A. Pesticide Toxicity Footprints of Australian Dietary Choices. 13, 4314 (2021).
  10. Hendrie, G.A., Baird, D., Ridoutt, B., Hadjikakou, M. & Noakes, M. Overconsumption of Energy and Excessive Discretionary Food Intake Inflates Dietary Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Australia. Nutrients 8(2016).
  11. Oxfam. Behind the Brands: Food justice and the ‘Big 10’ food and beverage companies. (Oxfam, Oxford, 2013).
  12. Anastasiou, K., et al. Conceptualising the drivers of ultra-processed food production and consumption and their environmental impacts: A group model-building exercise. Global Food Security 37, 100688 (2023).
  13. Kelly, B., et al. Global benchmarking of children’s exposure to television advertising of unhealthy foods and beverages across 22 countries. Obesity Reviews 20, 116-128 (2019).
  14. Taillie, L.S., et al. Changes in food purchases after the Chilean policies on food labelling, marketing, and sales in schools: a before and after study. The Lancet Planetary Health 5, e526-e533 (2021).



Kim Anastasiou is a Researcher at the University of Adelaide and Columbia University, and an executive board member of the advocacy organisation Healthy Food Systems Australia. She recently submitted her PhD on the topic of the environmental impacts of ultra-processed foods at Deakin University. Her research and advocacy work focuses on transitioning the food system to become healthier, more sustainable and equitable. She is currently conducting research on the impact of Australian food policies on achieving equitable access to healthy and sustainable diets.



You May Also Like…