Processed Food: Yes or No?

Several prepared meals, convenience food, Processed Food

PROCESSED FOOD: YES OR NO?

 

Processed food has a bad reputation as a health destroyer. It’s blamed for global obesity pandemic, high blood pressure and the rise of Type 2 diabetes. While some processed food should be consumed with caution, many actually have a place in a balanced diet. Processed food is more than boxed macaroni and cheese, potato chips, deli meats and drive-thru burgers. It may be a surprise to learn that whole-wheat bread, homemade soup or a chopped apple also are processed foods. Let us learn how to choose the best and what to avoid.

What are Processed Foods? 

The word “processed” often causes some confusion, so let me clarify what it means. Processed foods have been altered purposely in some way prior to consumption (1). It includes food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways. Any time we cook, bake or prepare food, we are processing food. It’s also the origin of the term ‘food processor,’ which can be a helpful and convenient tool for preparing healthy meals. It isn’t really the method of processing that makes some processed foods so bad; it’s the ingredients that are used in those products.

Processed food falls on a spectrum from minimally to heavily processed (1):

  • Minimally processed foods – often are simply pre-prepped for convenience
  • Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness
  • Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture (sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives)
  • Ready-to-eat foods such as crackers, granola and deli meat
  • The most heavily processed foods often are pre-made meals and microwaveable dinners.

 

The Good Side of Processed Foods

Most food that we eat is processed some way or the other, 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. These are nutritious choices and can make healthy eating more convenient for busy people. 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 nutrients and fiber. Canned fruit (packed in water or its own juice) is a good option when fresh fruit is not available.

Processed Fruit

Fruit and vegetable juices are beneficial most of the time, but avoid the brands with added sugars or that are high in sodium. Frozen foods are processed foods too. The best frozen foods are vegetables and fruits that don’t contain any sauce, sugar or syrup. Freezing preserves most vitamins and minerals and makes the food convenient to store, cook, and eat all year round. Oatmeal, frozen fish, and seafood (not fish sticks or breaded varieties), canned salmon, and canned tuna are nutritious. Dried fruits, roasted nuts and seeds, and 100-percent whole grain bread are also examples of processed foods that are right for you. Ultimately, you have to familiarize yourself with the products on the market as well as the ingredient list. Moreover, it is always better to do more cooking and food prep at home to maximize control over the food processing.

The Bad Side of Processed Foods

While the biggest problems in the processed food world might be rather obvious (frozen meals, deli meats and canned food might come to mind), these are hardly the only examples of processed foods that are sneaking their way into your diet. Ingredients such as salt, sugar and fat are added to processed foods to make them more appealing, palatable, extend their shelf life, or in some cases to contribute to the food’s structure.

  • Added sugar

Processed foods are usually loaded with added sugar or its evil twin, high fructose corn syrup. Processed foods and beverages are the biggest sources of added sugar (and HFCS) in the diet (3). Sugar is “empty” calories – it has no essential nutrients and can have serious adverse effects on metabolism when consumed in excess. Added sugars are any sugar that is not naturally occurring in the food and has been added manually. Just because a food is labeled ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it’s free of added sugars, either. The same fact holds true with reduced-fat and fat-free products. Added sugars often are used in low-fat foods to improve taste and consistency. They are not just hidden in processed sweets but added to bread to give it an appealing browned hue, and there often is a surprising amount added to dressings, sauces and cereal. Although the amount of carbohydrate naturally occurring sugars may be a significant amount in foods such as yogurt and fruit, processed food product’s ingredient list have added sugars among the first two or three ingredients.

  • Added Salt (Sodium)

Most canned vegetables, soups and sauces have added salt. Processed foods are contributing majorly of sodium in our diets, because salt is commonly added to preserve foods and extend shelf life. Choose foods labeled no salt added, low-sodium or reduced-sodium to decrease the amount of salt you’re consuming from processed foods. We need some sodium, but we often consume much more than the daily recommended amounts of less than 2,300 milligrams a day. An excessive sodium intake increases blood pressure which in turn may lead to other health complications.

  • High Fat

Processed foods are often high in unhealthy fats. Added fats can help make food shelf-stable and give it body. They usually contain cheap refined seed and vegetable oils (like soybean oil) that are often hydrogenated converting them into trans fats. Trans fats raise our bad cholesterol while lowering our good cholesterol which are on the decline in processed foods. These fats contain high amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids, which increase oxidation and inflammation in the body. Several studies have proven that the consumption of these oils, have significantly increased risk of heart disease. Although the FDA has banned the use of artificial trans fats from the food supply, companies have until 2018 to comply. So watch out for 0 grams of trans fats on the label and no partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list which does not have to be listed on the Nutrition Facts Label if it amounts to less than 0.5 grams per serving. However, even this amount is not safe for consumption. If the food lists partially hydrogenated oil as an ingredient, put it back.(8).

  • Artificial Ingredients

Most highly processed foods are overburdened with artificial chemicals. Looking at the ingredients label of a processed, packaged food, chances are that you won’t have a clue what some of the ingredients are.

This is because many of the ingredients in the product are not actual food, they are artificial chemicals that are added for various purposes. Highly processed foods often contain preservatives which prevent the food from rotting, colorants used to give food a specific color, flavorings that give food a particular flavor and texturants that give a particular texture. ‘Artificial flavor’ is a proprietary blend and manufacturers are not obligated to disclose exactly what it is. For this reason, when 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, including flavorants, texturants, colorants and preservatives.

  • Refined Carbohydrates

There is a lot of controversy regarding carbohydrates in the diet. Some people think that most of our energy intake should come from carbs, while others think they should be avoided. Processed foods are often high in carbs, but it is usually the refined variety. When whole food are processed, naturally found complex carbohydrates are broken down into simple carbohydrates. Refined, “simple” carbohydrates are quickly broken down in the digestive tract, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels. This can lead to carb cravings a few hours later when blood sugar levels decline again. This phenomenon is called the “blood sugar roller coaster,” which many people who have been on a high-carb diet can relate to. Hence, eating a lot of refined carbohydrates is associated with negative health effects and many chronic diseases. Do not be fooled by labels like “whole grains” that are often put 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. .

Fiber is also a complex carbohydrate that has various benefits. It functions as a prebiotic which feeds the friendly bacteria in the intestine (7). Fiber also slows down the absorption of carbohydrates, provides a feeling of satiety with fewer calories and binds cholesterol. 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. if you’re going to eat carbs, get them from whole, single ingredient foods, not processed junk foods.

  • Nutrient Deficient

Processed foods are quite low in essential nutrients compared to whole, unprocessed foods. Synthetic vitamins and minerals are often added to food products to compensate for what was lost during processing. However, synthetic nutrients are not always a good replacement since their bioavailability is much different that the nutrients naturally found in foods. Natural and wholesome foods contain thousands of other trace nutrients that science is just beginning to grasp. The more processed food you consume, the less vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and various trace nutrients you get.

  • Designed for Overconsumption

We all want to eat good food. Evolution provided us with taste buds that are supposed to help us navigate the natural food environment. Our appetite gravitates towards foods that are sweet, salty and fatty, because we know such foods contain energy and nutrients that we need for survival. Evidently, if a food manufacturer wants to succeed and get people to buy their product, it has to taste good. But today, the competition is fierce.

There are many different food manufacturers, all competing with each other. For this reason, massive resources are spent on making foods as desirable as possible. Many processed foods have been engineered to be so incredibly “rewarding” to the brain, that they overpower anything we might have come across in nature. We have complicated mechanisms in our bodies and brains that are supposed to regulate energy balance (how much we eat and how much we burn) which, until very recently in evolutionary history, worked to keep us at a healthy weight. There is quite a lot of evidence that the reward value of foods can bypass the innate defense mechanism and make us start eating much more than we need, so much that it starts to compromise our health. This is also known as the “food reward hypothesis of obesity” (5). The truth is, processed foods are so incredibly rewarding to our brains that they affect our thoughts and behavior, making us eat more and more until eventually we become sick (6).

The “hyper-rewarding” nature of processed foods can have serious consequences for some people. Although food addiction is something that most people don’t know about, we can see that it is a huge problem in society today. It is the main reason why some people just can’t stop eating these foods, no matter how hard they try. For many people, junk foods can overwhelm the biochemistry of the brain, leading to addiction and cause them to lose control over their consumption. This is actually supported by many studies. Sugar and highly rewarding junk foods activate the same areas in the brain as drugs of abuse like cocaine (4).

Processed Foods as part of a Healthy Diet

You have no control over the amount salt, sugar and fat in processed food but you do have control over what you to choose buy. By avoiding all processed foods can throw out the good with the bad. For choosing any food, reading the nutrition facts label is your best source of information. If you spend a few shopping excursions checking labels, you will soon be able to recognize which foods are best. Reading nutrition labels can help you choose between processed products and keep a check on fat, salt and sugar content. Most pre-packed foods have the nutrition information on the front, back or side of the packaging. There are guidelines to tell you if a food is high or low in fat, saturated fat, salt or sugar. The guidelines below are for adults (2):

 

HIGH per 100 g

LOW per 100g

Total fat

More than 17.5g

3g or less

Saturated fat

more than 5g

1.5g or less

Sugars

More than 22.5g total sugar

5g or less total sugar

Salt

More than 1.5g or 0.6g sodium

0.3g or less or 0.1g sodium

If you are trying to cut down on saturated fat, try to limit the amount of foods you eat that have more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g. Red and processed meat can be high in saturated fat, so you are advised not to eat more than 70g a day.

Any type of baking or frying is going to process food, but when you do that process yourself you have greater control over what ingredients are used, you maintain knowledge and control over what exactly is going into your body. Buying processed foods completely eliminates that privilege. Fair enough, processed foods are often easier. You can pop them in the microwave or let them defrost on the counter and suddenly you are ready to eat. However, this convenience can come at a great cost.

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REFERENCES

  1. Wolfram T. Processed Foods: What’s OK, What to Avoid. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/processed-foods-whats-ok-and-what-to-avoid.
  2. Eating Processed Foods. United Kingdom National Health Service (2016). https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/what-are-processed-foods/.

  3. Fructose, insulin resistance and metabolic dyslipidemia. Nutrition & metabolism (2005). https://nutritionandmetabolism.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1743-7075-2-5

  4. Common cellular and molecular mechanisms in obesity and drug addiction. Nat Rev Neuroscience (2011). https://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22011680

  5. From Passive Overeating to “Food Addiction”: A pectrum of compulsion and severity. ISRN Obesity (2013). https://hindawi.com/journals/isrn/2013/435027/

  6. Neurobiology of food addiction. Clinical nutrition and metabolic care (2010). https://journals.lww.com/co-clinicalnutrition/Abstract/2010/07000/Neurobiology_of_food_addiction.3.aspx

  7. Prebiotics in the gastro intestinal tract. Aliment Pharmacol Ther (2006). https://journals.lww.com/co-clinicalnutrition/Abstract/2010/07000/Neurobiology_of_food_addiction.3.aspx

  8. Cardiac proinflammatory pathways are altered with different dietary n-6 linoleic to n-3 α-linolenic acids ratios in normal fat-fed pigs. American Physiological Society (2007). https://physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/ajpheart.00324.2007

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