The intake of processed foods such as ready meals, baked goods, and processed meats has increased worldwide. These foods now account for 25–60% of a person’s daily food intake.
However, dieticians discourage the consumption of processed foods. They link this type of food to many negative health effects including overweight and obesity, high blood pressure, and Type 2 diabetes.
But are processed foods bad for you? In this article, we are going to learn food processing, and the effect this kind of food has on a person’s health.
Heavily processed food or ultra-processed foods usually contain ingredients or additives such as saturated fats, salt, and added sugar that can negatively affect our health.
What are processed foods?
This means all food that you cook, can, freeze, package, or alter in nutrient composition by fortifying, preserving, or preparing.
Therefore, processing food is more than just potato chips or drive-thru hamburgers. You will be surprised to learn that; sliced fruits like chopped apples, the soups you make at home and more are actually processed food
Although we should eat this kind of food in moderation, many actually must be part of your diet.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, processed food can be seen as being on a spectrum from minimally processed foods to highly processed or ultra-processed foods, as described below.
1. Minimally processed foods
These are simply prepared in advance for convenience. Examples are washing and bagging greens, peeling food, slicing fruits, roasting nuts, and boiling eggs.
2. Foods processed at their peak in terms of ripeness, flavor, and nutrition.
Examples include canned tomatoes, and frozen fruits and vegetables.
3. Foods with added ingredients for flavor and texture
The ingredients may include sweeteners, spices, oils, colors, and preservatives. Examples of such foods include; jarred pasta sauce, bottled salad dressing, yogurt, and cake mixes.
4. Ready-to-eat foods
For this, you will not have to cook or reheat before serving. They may include crackers, potato chips, and similar snacks, granola, and deli meat.
5. Heavily processed foods
These are pre-made meals like frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners. This group includes soda, donuts, cookies, and other baked goods, and candy.
Heavily processed foods contain artificial ingredients such as preservatives, colorants, fake flavorings, and chemicals to give food a particular texture.
We can also look at processed foods as either mechanically or chemically processed food
Mechanical processing involves grinding beef, heating vegetables, or pasteurizing foods and this does not make foods unhealthful since no ingredients are added.
Chemical processing involves adding refined ingredients and artificial substances with little nutritional value. This process involves adding chemical flavoring agents, colors, and sweeteners.
What are the examples of heavily processed foods?
Common examples of ultra-processed foods include:
- Frozen meals
- Baked goods: pizza, cakes, and pastries
- Packaged bread
- Processed cheese products
- Breakfast cereals
- Crackers and chips
- Candy and ice cream
- Instant noodles and soups
- Reconstituted meats: sausages, nuggets, fish fingers, and processed ham
- Sodas and other fizzy drinks
Are processed foods bad for you?
The truth is most foods go through processing and not all processing is bad or makes food unhealthy. Take an example of minimally processed foods which may involve washing fruits, peeling, or slicing. Neither of the above processes can change the nutritional value of the food in question.
On the other hand, heavily processed food or ultra-processed foods usually contain ingredients or additives that could negatively affect our health if consumed in excess. These may include; saturated fats, salt, and added sugar.
These types of food often have less dietary fiber, fewer vitamins, and more calories compared to whole foods.
Research has linked the consumption of ultra-processed foods to obesity and overweight, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular diseases.
For example, one large study, on over 100,000 adults, found that eating 10% more ultra-processed foods was associated with above a 10% increase in the risks of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disorders.
Another study, involving almost 20,000 adults, found that eating more than 4 servings of processed food daily was linked with an increased risk of all-cause mortality. For each additional serving, all-cause mortality risk increased by 18%.
In a nutshell, heavily processed foods contain added sugar, salt, trans fats, quick calories, refined carbs, and artificial ingredients which have various health risks. They are also low in fiber and other nutrients.
Are there any processed healthy foods?
Like we discussed above, not all processed foods are unhealthy. Certain foods benefit from processing. Let us look at some examples below.
- Pasteurized milk: pasteurizing kills bacteria and homogenized to keep fats from separating.
- Fortified grains: fortifying adds some nutrients to food. Examples of such food include; bread and breakfast cereal. These come with extra nutrients.
- Fruit juice with added calcium: A common example is an orange juice added with calcium
- Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables: These tend to retain their vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and more.
- Dried fruits: According to Harvard Health, dried fruits are high in fiber and phenols (an antioxidant) than fresh fruit. Fiber is good at fighting heart disease, obesity, and certain types of cancer.
How do we reduce processed food in our diet?
The truth is that; it is difficult to entirely remove ultra-processed food from our diet, however much we want to. This would mean not eating out at your best restaurant or skipping a family barbeque.
However, there are measures we can take to limit processed foods in our diet. The measures may include;
1. Reading product labels
Foods with long ingredient lists imply ultra-processed food. Some lists also contain hard-to-pronounce chemicals. All these are whistleblowers to make you avoid such foods.
2. Shop from the outside aisles at the grocery store
Outside aisles often have fresh products. Also, get more foods from the produce and dairy aisles.
3. Go for minimally processed meats
Minimally processed meat like seafood, chicken breast is better than sausages, and cured meats like bacon.
4. Start slowly
Changing from processed to unprocessed foods may not be an easy journey. Begin by replacing a few foods. You may begin by replacing your snacks with fresh or unprocessed fruits and gradually move to your main meals.
5. Prepare your food at home
Preparing your meals puts you at the center of everything. Since you’re in control, you decide how to prepare your food, what to include, and what to avoid during meal preparations.
Are there any benefits of eating processed food?
The following are some of the reasons why we think processed foods can be better at some point in time.
1. Processed foods are safe
During the processing, we treat food to kill harmful bacteria and external self-life. This makes food safe for you.
2. May provide more nutritional benefits
First of all, processing involves fortifying food products with additional nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber to enrich their nutritional profile. Also, processing increases food availability for example seasonal foods. Processing allows us to have the products even during the offseason.
3. Processed foods are convenient
Processing food makes life easier. For example, pre-packaging reduces meal preparation time for those of you who don’t have house helpers.
Can you lose weight eating processed food?
Although there may be a link between processed food and obesity, not all people who eat processed food end up obese.
Your weight so much depends on the calorie intake vs calorie expenditure. You will gain weight if you eat more calories than burn them, and the opposite is true.
Even though processed foods are high in calories, one can eat processed food and still lose weight provided they eat nutritious food, count their calories, and aim at creating a calorie deficit.
This means that they have to exercise regularly and burn more calories than they consume.
Are you looking to lose weight? Read our article “most filling foods for weight loss”
Processed food has been around ever since we learned smoking, cooking, sun drying, and salting. Processing gives us access to foods that would perish in transit.
However, you should use these foods in moderation. Most processed foods have added sugars, high in salt, high in trans fats, and chemicals that may harm our health.
Always look at product labels to avoid foods high in fats, sugars, and chemicals. Also, consider minimally processed food or prepare your meals at home. This puts you at the center whereby you control what the foods contain.
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