Recent Trends in Junk Food Intake in U.S. Children and Adolescents, 2003–2016

  • Elizabeth K. Dunford
    Address correspondence to: Elizabeth K. Dunford, PhD, Carolina Population Center CB# 8120 Carolina Square, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill NC 27516.
    Food Policy Division, The George Institute for Global Health, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

    Department of Nutrition, Gillings Global School of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
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  • Barry M. Popkin
    Department of Nutrition, Gillings Global School of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

    Carolina Population Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
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  • Shu Wen Ng
    Department of Nutrition, Gillings Global School of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

    Carolina Population Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
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      In the U.S., there is no consensus of how to define junk food. Strict regulations on what constitutes junk food denoted by front-of-package labels can serve as the basis for statutory actions. Chile was the first country to adopt this approach, and several countries have followed suit. This study examined the proportion of calories and nutrients of concern consumed by U.S. children and adolescents defined as junk food using the Chilean label criteria and the changes between 2003 and 2016.


      Data were obtained from 4 nationally representative food intake surveys in 13,016 U.S. children and adolescents: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003–2004, 2005–2006, 2013–2014, and 2015–2016, with analysis performed in 2019. Nutritional content of each consumed food was compared with nutrient thresholds from the Chilean regulation for energy, saturated fat, total sugars, and sodium per 100 g.


      Between 2003 and 2016, there was a 10 percentage point decrease (71.1%–61.3%, p<0.01) in the proportion of foods consumed that were classified as junk food. A significant decrease was seen in mean intake of calories (1,610–1,367 kcal/day, p<0.01), total sugar (88.8–64.2 g/day, p<0.01), saturated fat (22.6–20.5 g/day, p<0.01), and sodium (2,306–2,044 mg/day, p<0.01).


      Although junk food intake has decreased since 2003–2006, diets of U.S. children and adolescents remain dominated by less-healthy foods. These results can help guide policy regulations regarding foods and beverages accessible in schools and marketed to children, adolescents, and their caregivers.
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