What’s the big deal?
On the road to cleaning up your eating habits, you are bound to hear “limit processed foods.” But what’s so bad about processed foods in the first place? Can they really be that harmful?
First, let’s clarify what a processed food is.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a processed food is “any food that has been purposely changed in some way prior to consumption. It includes food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways.”
In other words, unless you have grown a food, picked it, and eaten it without cooking it, most of the foods you eat have been processed in some way.
Processing a food is not necessarily a bad thing. Because most of us don’t live on farms or grow our own foods, food processing has made all of our lives more convenient.
Can you imagine only being able to eat the foods that you grow? Or how about being limited to only eating foods that are in season?
Many of us expect to have access to the same foods all year round, regardless of when they were harvested. So, minimally processing a food does have numerous benefits, like wider availability, preserving freshness, and boosting the nutrient content.
On the other hand, highly processed foods crowd grocery store shelves, opening up a whole wide world of products with ingredients that have been linked to everything from obesity to chronic diseases.
To make sure you know what to look out for, here are eight reasons why these products can be so harmful.
The first thing to keep in mind is that the food industry is made up of businesses. The intent of a business is to make money and not necessarily to keep you healthy. How does a food business make money? By making a food taste AMAZING! There are a few ways to this, but one of the most common ways is to add sugar.
We live in a time when almost everything has been sweetened. Our need for sweets drives up profits, which creates a cycle of companies giving us more of what we want, even at the expense of our own health. So, sugar is added to most packaged foods, which can quickly become a problem.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar (24g) for women and 9 teaspoons (36g) for men per day. It’s very easy to consume way more than that, especially if you consume sugar-sweetened beverages daily. The average 12oz. soda has 40g of sugar. That’s 10 teaspoons!
High sugar intake has been linked to increased belly fat and risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, insulin resistance, diabetes, and heart disease.
Another easy way to improve taste is to add fat. Healthy fats provide us with a host of benefits like improving brain and heart health and acting as an anti-inflammatory. Many processed foods do just the opposite.
For one, soybean oil has become a common additive. Soybean oil provides plenty of heart-healthy unsaturated fats, most of which are omega-6 fatty acids.
Though our bodies need omega-6 fatty acids, research shows there is an optimal ratio for the amounts of omega-6 fatty acids we should consume compared to omega-3 fatty acids. It is recommended to eat, at most, four times as many omega-6’s as omega-3 fatty acids.
Because soybean oil is so frequently used in foods, we tend to intake large amounts of omega-6 fatty acids. It is estimated that our current diet has a ratio of 15 to 1 and sometimes even higher!
When we eat a much higher ratio of omega-6 fatty acids compared to omega-3 fatty acids, it can lead to chronic inflammation in our bodies. This chronic inflammation can cause increases in chronic inflammatory diseases like fatty liver disease, heart disease, arthritis, obesity, and Alzheimer’s.
Secondly, trans fat is added to some products to keep them shelf stable. This is the worst kind of fat you can consume because it increases your risk for heart attack, stroke, and diabetes.
Unfortunately, you cannot just look on the nutrition label to see how much trans fat is in the food product. If there is less than 0.5 grams of a nutrient, the label can list 0g.
The only way to truly tell if a food product contains trans fat is to read the ingredient list. It is listed as hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oil. Make sure to check the list for this type of fat.
Most of the sodium we consume comes from processed foods. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention mentions that 70% of our sodium intake is from processed foods and restaurant foods.
Ever read the nutrition label for a frozen meal? The sodium is typically through the roof, even for meals that are supposedly healthy.
Sodium not only provides taste, but it also acts as a preservative, prevents bacterial growth, and is needed for leavening and texture.
Some of the most common foods that contribute to high sodium intake include pizza, sandwiches, deli meats, pasta dishes, snacks, breads and rolls.
High sodium intake has been linked to high blood pressure, which can cause heart disease and stroke. The current recommendation for sodium is less than 2300mg of sodium per day.
Check the nutrition label to keep track of how much sodium you’re consuming. Using the percentages is a simple way to gauge if a product is high. If a food has 20% sodium or more per serving, that means it is high in sodium. If it has 5% or less per serving, the food is low in sodium.
The easiest way to reduce your sodium intake is to eat foods as fresh as possible and limit how much salt you add to your meals.
Lower in Fiber
Sometimes processing may remove fiber from foods for taste or texture. Foods without fiber are softer and often thought to be more palatable. But fiber is a very important nutrient for both heart and gut health.
Fiber helps push foods through the digestive tract, keeping you “regular” and decreasing constipation. It also helps to stabilize blood sugar levels by slowing down the absorption of sugars, reducing risk for diabetes. Fiber benefits heart health by lowering cholesterol and blood pressure.
Most Americans do not eat the daily recommended amount of fiber, which is 25g for women and 38g for men.
If you eat large amounts of overly processed foods, you are probably not getting enough fiber. Choose whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables to bump up your fiber intake.
A big part of food processing involves adding preservatives to keep foods fresh for longer periods of time. They help extend the shelf life of a food and keep them from spoiling as quickly. This makes our lives MUCH more convenient, but some preservatives come with a cost. A few common preservatives have been linked to various forms of cancer and neurological disorders.
Sodium nitrite and nitrates are found in processed meats like lunch meat, hot dogs, and bacon. These chemicals can convert into carcinogenic compounds when cooked in high heat, like frying or grilling.
Sulfites are preservatives used in food and beverages to prevent browning. A few foods that contain sulfites are dried fruit, wine, potato chips, and some baked goods. These preservatives have been linked to asthma and allergic reactions.
There are quite a few other preservatives that have conflicting research about their long-term effects. The safest bet is to limit your intake of processed foods.
Because of our love for sweets, it’s no surprise that sugars are added to food products. In efforts to reduce calories while still maintaining a sweet taste, artificial sweeteners were created. Some of the most common forms are aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, and acesulfame potassium.
Many artificial sweeteners are zero-calorie, so they provide the benefit of reducing your caloric intake, possibly aiding in weight loss. And they don’t spike your blood sugar levels the same way sugar does, which can help control the risk of developing diabetes.
But there is conflicting research that shows these sweeteners may not be all positive news.
Some studies conclude these additives decrease satiety, causing you to feel hungrier and overeat. Other studies show they may contribute to your sweet tooth, making you crave more sweets. Also, drinking multiple diet beverages per day has been linked to increased obesity. So much for weight loss!
Artificial sweeteners have also been shown to be addictive, causing withdrawal symptoms like headaches once consumption has decreased.
Aim to limit your intake of these additives. Consume them occasionally as opposed to making them a part of your daily diet.
Lower in Nutrients
Processing a food typically reduces its natural nutrient content. According to Nutrition Data, “processes that expose foods to high levels of heat, light, and/or oxygen cause the greatest nutrient loss.”
But keep in mind, some processed foods were not real foods to begin with. They are food-like products.
What do I mean?
If you walk up and down the grocery store aisle, you’ll find some foods that have been slightly altered from their original forms, like rice. You can find rice in nature, and it was once alive. The ingredients list on a package of rice normally only contains rice. This is how you know you are eating a minimally processed food.
Then, there are tons of products that are not naturally occurring foods, period. These are products like chips, cookies, candies, and fast food products that were made in a lab.
When you read their ingredients list, you get a long list of chemicals, sugars, salts, oils, and other additives. But one of the main things missing from the food is real nutrients.
Overly processed foods tend to provide empty-calories without the vitamins, minerals, and other substances our bodies need for optimum health.
Added Flavors and Colors
You may be wondering why food companies add flavors and colors to food products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states, “Spices, natural and artificial flavors, and sweeteners are added to enhance the taste of food. Food colors maintain or improve appearance.”
Remember when I told you to keep in mind that the food industry is made up of businesses with the intent to make money?
Flavors and colors are added to products to appeal to consumers so we’ll be more likely to buy them.
Naturally-occurring colors and flavors can be lost during food processing or may be inconsistent from package to package. Adding colors and flavors helps to standardize the food so that it looks and tastes the exact same way every time you eat it.
Colors and flavors can also be added to enhance a food and make it more palatable. And this is where it gets tricky.
Regularly consuming overly processed foods can cause you dislike REAL foods because the processed foods are created to taste AMAZING. And this taste is often times created in a lab, so real foods can’t even compete.
Because flavors and colors can be manipulated in a lab to look and taste like ANYTHING, you may begin to prefer eating junk food because they were created to make you love them.
All the sudden, fruit isn’t sweet enough and real foods taste “bland” or “don’t look right.” This is because you are comparing them to products that don’t even really exist.
Protect your palate. Limit your intake of overly processed food products so you won’t be comparing something artificial to the real thing.
Processed foods play a large role in our food supply and help to improve our accessibility to food.
But on the downside, some foods are overly processed, lacking the nutrients that our bodies need and contributing to poor health outcomes over time.
Limit how frequently you consume these items and aim to eat fresh, real foods. Read the ingredients list and look for foods with as few ingredients as possible.
Processed Foods: What’s OK and What to Avoid. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. November 7, 2016.
10 Processed Foods to Avoid. Healthline. September 19, 2014.
17 Processed Foods to Avoid. Body Nutrition. December 8, 2017.
Sodium’s Role in Processed Foods. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/salt/pdfs/sodium_role_processed.pdf
Soybean Oil. United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. USDA Food Composition Databases. http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/search
- Patterson,R. Wall,G. F. Fitzgerald, R. P. Ross, and C. Stanton. J Nutr Metab. 2012. Health Implications of High Dietary Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3335257/
Food additives, safety, and organic foods. American Cancer Society. January 11, 2012.
7 Worst Ingredients in Food. Dr. Mercola website. December 30, 2013.
Nutrition and Healthy Eating. Mayo Clinic. September 2015.
World Health Organization Says Processed Meat Causes Cancer. Oct 26, 2015. https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/world-health-organization-says-processed-meat-causes-cancer.html?_ga=2.63627692.2043255059.1541294618-1172027664.1541294618
The Association Between Artificial Sweeteners and Obesity.
Artificial sweeteners: sugar-free, but at what cost? Harvard Medical School. JULY 16, 2012,
Nutritional Effects of Food Processing. Self NutritionData. https://nutritiondata.self.com/topics/processing#ixzz5VudJfDaj
Are Nitrates and Nitrites in Foods Harmful? Healthline. June 4, 2017.
Are Preservatives Bad For Our Health? Greatist. August 2012.
Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives & Colors. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. April 2010.