Make a tasty, fresh salad instead: junk food is dangerous to your children’s bones, say Hebrew University researchers

The world’s omnipresent junk food – ultra-processed food readymade and easy to prepare – is bad for the bone health, especially that of young children. A team of researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has proven the linkages between ultra-processed foods and reduced bone quality, unveiling the damage of these foods particularly for younger children in their developing years.  


The study, led by Prof. Efrat Monsonego-Ornan and Dr. Janna Zaretsky from the department of biochemistry, food science and nutrition in the University’s Faculty of Agriculture, was recently published in the journal Bone Research under the title “Ultra-processed food targets bone quality via endochondral ossification.” 

The lab research on rodents is the first comprehensive study of the effect of widely available food products on skeleton development. Junk food include food products that undergo several stages of processing and contain non-dietary ingredients.  They’re popular with consumers because they’re easily accessible, relatively inexpensive and ready-to-eat straight out of the package or requiring minimal cooking. The increasing prevalence of these products around the world has directly contributed to increased obesity and other mental and metabolic impacts on consumers of all ages.   


Children around the world – including in Israel – tend to like junk food.  As much as 70% percent of their caloric consumption are estimated to come from ultra-processed foods.  While numerous studies have reflected on the overall negative impact of junk food, few have focused on its direct developmental effects on children, particularly young children.


The Jerusalem study surveyed rodents whose skeletons were in the post-embryonic stages of growth. Those fed ultra-processed foods were found to suffer from growth retardation, and their bone strength was adversely affected. Upon examination of their tissues, the rodents were found to have high levels of cartilage buildup in their growth plates, the “engine” of bone growth. When subjected to additional tests of the rodent cells, the researchers found that the RNA genetic profiles of cartilage cells that had been subjected to junk food were showing characteristics of impaired bone development. 


The team then went on to analyze how specific eating habits might impact bone development and replicated this kind of food intake for the rodents.  “We divided the rodents’ weekly nutritional intake – 30% came from a ‘controlled’ diet, 70% from ultra-processed foods,” explained Monsonego-Ornan. They found that the rodents experienced moderate damage to their bone density even though there were fewer indications of cartilage buildup in their growth plates.  “Our conclusion was that even in reduced amounts, the ultra-processed foods can have a definite negative impact on skeletal growth.” 


These findings are critical because children and adolescents consume these foods on a regular basis to the extent that half of American kids eat junk food each and every day, and Israeli children are not far behind. 


Monsonego-Ornan concluded that “when Carlos Monteiro – one of the world’s leading experts on nutrition – said that there is no such thing as  healthful ultra-processed food, he was clearly right.  Even if we reduce fats, carbohydrates, nitrates and other known harmful substances, these foods still possess their damaging attributes.  Every part of the body is prone to this damage and certainly those systems that remain in the critical stages of development.”



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