According to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 61% of your daily calories could be coming from highly processed foods (2).
If you are reading this article, chances are you had some form of processed food today. And this doesn’t come as a surprise, given that 7 out of every 10 foods that we touch on a daily basis are altered by chemical ingredients. But does this mean most of us are destined for premature death? Or is there a way out?
Table Of Contents
What Are Processed Foods?
Processed foods are those laced with unhealthy chemicals that contribute to diseases like cancer and obesity, right? Well, not quite. The definition is slightly complex.
Food processing is of three types:
- primary food processing, which turns raw agricultural products into edible foods (like shelling nuts, or even butchering animals for meat)
- secondary food processing, which creates everyday foods from ingredients that are ready to use (like baking bread), and
- tertiary food processing, which involves the commercial production of ready-to-eat or heat-and-serve foods (the typical junk food).
Some common examples of processed foods include breakfast cereals, bread, meat products like bacon, sausage, and ham, cakes and biscuits, soft drinks, and convenience foods like ready-to-eat meals.
Even milk and seed oils are processed.
Does this mean you cannot eat any of those?
What Makes Processed Foods Good Or Bad?
Not all processed foods are bad. Take milk – it is processed to remove the impurities. Seeds undergo processing too – they are pressed to extract oils, which can be sold in usable forms.
It is tertiary processing we must be wary of. Also called chemical processing, this is where foods are laced with additives and preservatives to make them look and taste appealing – and even to extend their shelf lives. These are typically what we call processed foods.
There are different methods of food processing. These include:
|Canning||Food is heated to high temperatures and then stored in airtight containers.|
|Fermentation||Sugars are broken down using bacteria or yeasts.|
|Freezing||Food temperatures are reduced below -18°C to reduce harmful bacterial activity.|
|Modified atmosphere packaging||Air inside a package is replaced by a gas mix (oxygen, CO2, and nitrogen) to extend shelf life.|
|Pasteurization||Food is heated to 72°C to kill microorganisms and then rapidly cooled to 5°C.|
|Smoking||Food is treated by heat and chemicals to preserve it.|
|Additives||Food additives are added to preserve freshness, improve taste and appearance, and extend shelf life.|
Almost all foods that we eat are processed to some degree.
And processing can work both ways – it can increase the nutritional quality of foods or even decrease it.
Beneficial processing is when foods are fortified with vitamins and minerals, or when fat, sugar, or sodium are reduced. On the other hand, excessive heating or freezing of foods can destroy important nutrients and even introduce undesirable substances into the foods.
This is what makes processed foods good or bad. But most often, foods that are processed tend to lean towards the ugly side. This is because of the ingredients that go into them. These include:
Artificial sweeteners, which enhance your appetite and provoke you to eat more. Animal studies have proven that artificial sweeteners can lead to weight gain, bladder cancer, brain tumors, and several other health hazards (3). Some lethal artificial sweeteners include aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose.
Trans fats, which are added to fried foods, store-bought baked goods, crackers, and chips. Research shows trans fats can cause cardiovascular disease (4). Trans fats may also lead to cancer, inflammation, a suppressed immune system, and diabetes.
Artificial flavors and colors, which are added to enhance the taste and appearance of foods. Statistics show that in the US alone, food manufacturers add 15 million pounds of artificial food dyes to foods every year (6).
High-fructose corn syrup, which could be as deadly as alcohol – it can tax and damage your liver. HCFS is deadly. Studies show how it can contribute to severe metabolic disorders and even obesity (7).
And this is what a report by the American Society for Nutrition has to say:
“Growing research suggests that excess phosphorus in the diet, particularly in the form that is added for processing purposes, may increase risks of cardiovascular and bone disease, particularly in those who have kidney disease.”
Phosphorus is widely used as a food additive, and now we know what an excess of it can lead to (8). This is just the tip of the iceberg.
The food additives pile up into a heap as big as the hills. There are several thousand food additives. Though some are added to make the food safer, most serve the purpose of making the food more appealing (9).
All of this can lead to severe health concerns.
What Are The Dangers Of Processed Foods?
1. They Are Loaded With Sugar
Or high-fructose corn syrup. These added sugars are empty calories. They provide energy but contain no nutrition. Studies show how taking too much of this can lead to dangerous issues with your metabolism – including type 2 diabetes and heart disease (10).
And here’s the cold truth – processed foods are responsible for 90% of added sugars in an average American diet (11).
2. They Contain No Fiber
The processing of foods removes most (or all) of the fiber in them. Fiber has several benefits – it feeds the friendly bacteria in the intestines and improves digestive health. It also eases constipation and promotes regularity (12).
3. They Are Designed To Be Addictive
Foods like chips and cookies are chemically altered so that eating them releases dopamine (13). This is one reason people find it hard to battle food addictions or keep away from junk food. Junk foods can hijack the biochemistry of the brain, making people lose control over their intake.
Now you know why you cannot stop with just one single chip.
4. Have High Sodium Levels
Excess sodium is a killer. Your body sure needs salt to function properly – which you already get from a well balanced diet. But excess sodium is added to processed foods to improve their taste and shelf life. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, excess sodium can increase the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease (14).
5. Are Very Low In Nutrients
When compared to whole foods, processed foods are quite low in nutrients. They also don’t contain the trace nutrients present in organic foods. You will only be piling on calories and sugar and sodium, with absolutely no nutritional value.
6. High In Trans Fats
Processed foods often contain cheap fats and refined vegetable oils, which get converted into trans fats due to prior processing. These fats contain an excess of omega-6 fatty acids, which lead to inflammation and a host of other diseases (15).
Definitely not a pretty picture. So, what’s the next step? Understanding which processed foods you must avoid and which you can take.
What Are The Processed Foods You Must Avoid?
Processed foods sure are convenient. But with this convenience comes calamity. The following table will give you some perspective.
|Sugary or aerated drinks||Water, soda water (with a slice of lemon, if desired), tea|
|Pizzas||Homemade pizzas with wholesome ingredients|
|White bread||Ezekiel bread, whole grain bread If you’re gluten intolerant, you can go for gluten-free bread.|
|Most fruit juices (due to the added sugar and removed pulp)||Pulpy fruit juices with very little juice Eating whole fruits works best.|
|Margarine||Real butter from grass-fed cows|
|Pastries, cakes, and cookies||Homemade cookies with healthy ingredients|
|Potato chips and French fries||Boiled potatoes, nuts|
|Gluten-free junk foods||Foods that are naturally gluten-free, like plant and animal foods that are unprocessed|
|Low-fat yogurt (loaded with sugar to compensate for the lack of taste that fats otherwise offer)||Full-fat yogurt with live and active probiotics, yogurt from grass-fed cows|
|Ice cream||Homemade ice cream with healthy ingredients and less or no sugar|
|Candy bars||A piece of fruit, real high-cocoa dark chocolate|
|Processed meat||Meats from local sellers that don’t add too many unhealthy ingredients|
|Processed cheese||Real cheese|
|High-calorie coffee (one loaded with cream and sugar)||Black coffee, coffee with some full-fat milk|
We sure can make wise choices. Here’s how you can stop eating processed foods and opt for a much healthier lifestyle.
How To Choose Healthier Alternatives
- Make it a habit of reading food labels. You will know what is there in the processed food. Go for products without too much sodium, sugar, or trans fats.
- Frozen and canned produce work fine. Frozen or canned fruits and vegetables are convenient, less expensive, and nutritious. Ensure you aren’t going for varieties with sugary syrups or salty sauces.
- Be mindful while eating out. Preparing food at home is best. But if you want to dine out once in a while, why not? Go to restaurants that have healthier food choices. You can even check with the restaurant how the food is prepared. Opt for those where food is cooked fresh instead of packaged.
- Grow fruits and vegetables. If you have space limitation, check for community gardening. Growing your own produce encourages you to stick to a healthier diet.
- You can go for supplements too. Though not everyone may need a variety of supplements, research shows supplements can help bridge the nutrition gap (16). Ensure you go for organic supplements that come from reputed brands. You may also want to check with your health care provider if you have any specific medical condition/are already taking medications.
It’s all about having the right information. Unhealthy processed foods sure form a major part of your environment, but that doesn’t mean you cannot avoid them. By being proactive and mindful about your choices, you can start living a healthier lifestyle.
Let us know how this post has helped you. Leave a comment in the box below.
- “Should you take dietary supplements?” News in Health. US Department of Health and Human Services.
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