Processed Food and its Effect on Your Health

Processed Food

What is Processed Food?

The term ‘processed food’ applies to any food that has been changed from its natural state in some way, either for safety reasons or convenience. Some foods need processing to make them safe, such as milk, which needs to be pasteurized to remove harmful bacteria. Other foods need processing to make them suitable for use, such as pressing seeds to make oil.

But there is a difference between mechanical processing and chemical processing. If it’s a single ingredient food with no added chemicals, then it doesn’t matter if it’s been grounded or put into a jar. It’s still pure food. However, foods that have been chemically processed and made solely from refined ingredients and artificial substances, are generally known as processed food.

Ingredients such as salt, sugar and fat are sometimes added in processed foods to make their flavour more appealing and to prolong their shelf life, or in some cases to contribute to the food’s structure, such as salt in bread or sugar in cakes. This can lead people to eat more than the recommended amounts of these additives, as they may not be aware of how much has been added to the food they are buying and eating. Reading nutrition labels can help you choose between processed products and keep a check on the amount of processed foods you’re eating that are high in fat, salt and added sugars.

What is Good about Some Processed Foods?

Not all processed food is a bad choice. Most foods we eat are processed in some way. Apples are plucked from trees, butter is cream that has been separated from the milk and churned, freezing fruit and vegetables preserves most vitamins and make it convenient to store and cook. You can choose to eat all year round, with less waste and cost than fresh.

Processed food can be beneficial to your diet. Milk and juices sometimes are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and breakfast cereals may have added fiber. Canned fruit (packed in water or its own juice) is a good option when fresh fruit is not available. Some minimally processed food such as pre-cut vegetables are quality convenience foods for busy people.

Food processing techniques include freezing, canning, baking, drying and pasteurizing products. The trick is to distinguish between foods that have been lightly processed versus heavily processed. Lightly processed foods include pre-cut apple slices, hard-boiled eggs, canned tuna and frozen vegetables. Heavily processed foods can be recognized as food not in its original form, like potato chips and biscuits, or food that is not naturally occurring, such as cold drink, donuts, cookies and toffee.

What is Bad About Processed Foods?

  • Processed foods and beverages are the biggest sources of added sugar which become the source of High fructose in the diet. Sugar is very unhealthy and can have serious adverse effects on metabolism when consumed in excess. Sugar contains a lot of calories, with no essential nutrients. It also causes tooth decay by feeding the harmful bacteria in the mouth. For people who are inactive and consume processed food, the large amounts of fructose from added sugars get turned into fat in the liver. Excess fructose gets turned into fat, which can lodge in the liver and cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
  • Highly processed foods are loaded with artificial chemicals, including flavorants, sweeteners, texturants, colorants and preservatives. Many of these products contain less real food or no food at all. Some of them contain highly refined ingredients like wheat flour, corn syrup and vegetable oils. They are then made palatable using artificial flavors and various processing techniques. Keep in mind that processed foods can contain dozens of additional chemicals that aren’t even listed on the label. For example, “artificial flavor” is a proprietary blend. Manufacturers don’t have to disclose exactly what it means and it is usually a combination of chemicals. For this reason, if you see “artificial flavor” on an ingredients list, it could mean that there are 10 or more additional chemicals that are blended in to give a specific flavor.
  • For many people, junk foods can alter the biochemistry of the brain, leading to downright addiction and cause them to lose control over their consumption. The fact is junk foods stimulate the reward system in the brain in the same way as drugs of abuse like cocaine.
  • The carbohydrates you find in processed foods are usually refined, “simple” carbohydrates which are quickly broken down in the digestive tract. These lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels and cause negative health effects. This can lead to sweet cravings a few hours later when blood sugar levels go down again. This phenomenon is also called the “blood sugar roller coaster” which many people who have been on a high-carb diet can relate to. Do not be fooled by labels like “whole grains” that are often printed on processed food packages, including breakfast cereals. These are usually whole grains that have been pulverized into very fine flour and are just as harmful as their refined counterparts. If you’re going to eat carbs, get them from whole, single ingredient foods, not processed junk foods.
  • There are many nutrients found in whole foods that are not found in processed foods. The more foods you eat, the less you will get of the nutrients. In some cases, synthetic vitamins and minerals are added to the foods to compensate for what was lost during processing. However, synthetic nutrients are not a good replacement for the nutrients found in whole natural foods.
  • Soluble, fermentable fiber has various important health benefits, but most processed foods are very low in fiber because it is lost or intentionally removed during processing. One of the main ones is that it functions as a prebiotic, feeding the friendly bacteria in the intestine. There is also evidence that fiber can slow down the absorption of carbohydrates and help us feel more satisfied with fewer calories.
  • Processed foods are often high in unhealthy fats. They usually contain cheap fats, refined seed- and vegetable oils (like soybean oil) that are often hydrogenated, which turns them into trans fats. These fats contain excessive amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids, which can drive oxidation and inflammation in the body. The best way to avoid seed oils and trans fats are to avoid processed foods. Eat real fats like butter, coconut oil and olive oil instead.
We only burn half as many calories digesting and metabolizing processed foods compared to whole foods. Ultimately, you have to familiarize yourself with the Nutrition Facts Label and ingredient list. Do more cooking and food preparation at home to maximize control over the food processing.