News release: Time to curb our appetite for ultra-processed food

Research reveals half our daily calories come from ultra-processed foods, and that kids are the biggest consumers

New research commissioned by Heart & Stroke shows that ultra-processed food consumption in Canada continues to increase and is alarmingly high, accounting for almost half of our daily calorie intake. Most troubling is that young people get more than half their calories from ultra-processed foods – more than any other age group. The highest consumers are kids ages 9–13 who get 57% of their calories from these energy-dense, nutritionally-lacking products.

“Ultra-processed food consumption increased from 47.7% of our daily calories in 2004 to 48.3% in 2015. Consumption of these products is high amongst all socio-economic groups,” says Dr. Jean-Claude Moubarac, an assistant professor at the University of Montreal, and author of the report. 

Newcomers consume considerably less of their calories from ultra-processed foods than those born in Canada.

An earlier study shows that the most important change in Canadian dietary patterns between 1938 and 2011 was the replacement of diets based on freshly prepared meals and dishes made from unprocessed or minimally processed foods for diets dominated by ultra-processed foods. Similar trends have been reported from other high-income countries and now also from middle-income countries.

Diet has a significant impact on the health of Canadians, and ultra-processed foods are nutritionally poor. The more ultra-processed food products consumed, the poorer the overall nutritional quality of diets.

Recent data reveal that unhealthy diets are now the leading risk factor for death in Canada. Canadians are unfortunately the second largest buyers of ultra-processed foods and drinks in the world, second only to Americans.

Food processing as such is not an issue. Almost all food is processed in some way, and ranges from minimally processed foods such as frozen vegetables, eggs and milk, to culinary ingredients such as oil and table sugars, to processed foods like simple breads and cheeses. 

Ultra-processed foods are the problem. These are formulations of substances derived from foods, plus additives; they contain little if any intact food. They include pre-prepared ready-to-eat meals, sugary drinks, fatty, sugary or salty snacks, candy, and sweetened cereals among others. Overall, these products have twice the calories (energy density), three times the amount of free sugars, and twice the sodium compared with other food groups, and much less protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals.  

The research also reveals that the products that provide the most calories in our diets are pre-prepared, ready-to-eat dishes such as pizza, burgers, sandwiches and frozen dishes, followed by packaged breads and sweetened drinks.  

“Canadians are consuming high levels of ultra-processed foods, and are not eating enough healthy, whole foods,” says Dr. Moubarac. “Ultra-processed foods displace all other food groups. They are usually branded assertively, packaged attractively, and marketed intensively, especially to our children.”

With the proliferation of processed, packaged and ready-to-eat or -heat foods in Canada and the negative effects on health, stronger food policies and guidelines are required. 

“Food processing has increased rapidly and the resulting products are problematic. We need to work together to change the food environment to make the healthy choices the easier choices,” says Yves Savoie, CEO, Heart & Stroke. “We are looking forward to the release of the revised Food Guide, implementation of new easy-to-understand, highly visible front-of-package nutrition labelling, and legislation restricting unhealthy food and beverage marketing to children.” 

Canadians should eat and cook at home as often as possible and in the company of others. Healthy, balanced diets include a rich variety of whole and minimally processed foods. Canadians should avoid ultra-processed foods, including sugary drinks. 

The report also reveals that healthy diets are being consumed by a substantial number of Canadians.

  • For the first time we have kids who have spent their whole lives eating unhealthy diets high in ultra-processed foods.
  • Young people consume the most sugary drinks. The average youth drinks 578 ml of sugary drinks each day which can contain up to 16 teaspoons or 64 grams of sugar.
  • Calories from ultra-processed food purchases have doubled in 70 years from 24% to 54% of family food purchases.
  • Millions of Canadians are living with diet-related disease.
  • The annual cost of diet-related disease in Canada is $26 billion.
  • Almost one in three children is overweight or obese.
About Heart & Stroke

Life. We don’t want you to miss it. That’s why Heart & Stroke leads the fight against heart disease and stroke. We must generate the next medical breakthroughs, so Canadians don’t miss out on precious moments. Together, we are working to prevent disease, save lives and promote recovery through research, health promotion and public policy.

Contact Information

Stephanie Lawrence
Senior Manager, Communications, Heart & Stroke 
613.691.4022 or 613.290.4236