Processed foods, you hear a lot about them these days but do you really know what they are? There’s some confusion about processed foods and what makes them “bad.” After all, both plain yogurt and soda are processed but it’s pretty safe to say that yogurt has some health benefits while soda doesn’t. Here’s a breakdown of processed foods; what I call the good, the bad, and the really ugly…
Confused about processed foods?
Much of the confusion about processed foods comes from the use of one term to describe a range of foods, many with excellent health benefits and many with none. Processed food simply refers to any food altered from its naturally occurring state; for example, wheat made into flour for bread or milk made into cheese. The processed food definition also applies to all of the nearly unidentifiable foods we often refer to as junk foods, like chips, candies, fries, and sodas. As you can see, there is a wide spectrum of processed foods. It helps to create subcategories of processed foods to better understand their health impact. I call these the good, the bad, and the really ugly.
The Really Ugly
The really ugly foods have also been referred to as the ultra-processed foods. These foods offer no nutritional value and they can actually detract from your health. These are the foods you want to avoid. They often contain additives like food coloring, stabilizers, and other artificial ingredients and are highly refined, high in sugar, especially high fructose corn syrup, and/or fats, and may contain trans-fats. Food preparation techniques like deep frying can also make a good food bad or really ugly. In reality, these foods bear little resemblance to the natural foods they were derived from and often contain more synthetic ingredients than real ingredients. Sadly, a recent study found that half of the calories consumed in the US come from these types of processed foods.
The next category is what I call the bad. In general, these foods offer some nutritional value, making them a little better than the really ugly. However, the nutritional value that they do offer is often offset by ingredients that detract from your health. Examples of these would include refined breads and cereals, foods with added sugar, many prepared meals, and processed meats, to name just a few. This category includes the bulk of processed foods. It’s also the category where most people unwittingly make health mistakes. For example, a homemade sandwich can seem like a healthy lunch but if it’s made from a refined grain bread with added sugar and processed lunch meats you’re actually hurting your health.
Finally, the good processed foods! Of which there are many. These foods are high in nutritional value, promote health and in some cases, the processing actually makes the food healthier. A few examples of these include plain and plain Greek yogurts, whole grain, sugar-free breads, and red wine. Yes, I said red wine. For some people having a glass a day can have health benefits.
Your Health and Processed Foods
The health implications of eating the really ugly and bad processed foods goes far beyond just the calories they pack. Here are just a few of the ingredients found in the really ugly and bad processed foods that can have a negative impact on your health.
Food additives improve food taste, visual appeal, mouth feel, and shelf-life but it comes at a price. Food additives can lead to food intolerances and are associated with increased risk of heart disease, obesity and some cancers (ie. colorectal cancer from processed meats)¹. In addition, research data suggests that there are several food additives linked to an increased risk of developing autoimmune diseases². These additives have been found to loosen the tight junctions (connections between intestinal cells) of the gut leading to what’s been dubbed, “leaky gut” syndrome. The loss of the intestinal tight junctions increases the risk of developing certain autoimmune diseases. (Get the list of additives by clicking the link below…)
Trans-fat (partially hydrogenated oils)
Yep, they’re still lurking in processed foods despite the FDA ban. Trans-fats aren’t even recognized as being safe for consumption! A direct link between trans-fat consumption and heart disease has been clearly established. Trans-fats occur naturally in meat and dairy foods but don’t seem to have the same health risks as those added to foods, referred to as industrial trans-fats. While nutritional labels are required to list trans-fat content, it is important to note that the FDA allows a label to read as 0 if the total amount of trans-fat per serving is 0.5g or less. In addition, some food companies may receive exemptions from the FDA.
Added sugar has come under fire recently as new studies have linked consumption with increased disease risks. Let’s face it, sugar is added to nearly every really ugly and bad processed food, even the savory ones. Gone are the days when sugar could be easily recognized as sweet treats, now it’s hidden in ALL kinds of processed foods. Studies have linked added sugar (not naturally occurring sugar, like that in whole fruit and milk) with an increased risk of heart disease, breast cancer, and cancer metastasis, impaired memory function, depression and anxiety, cognitive decline and dementia, fatty liver disease, obesity, and accelerated aging. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a major contributor to these disease risks. Researchers from UCLA found that HFCS modulates 900 genes involved in brain health and metabolism by altering the DNA.
Unless you have high blood pressure or are very health conscious, you may not have noticed how high salt contents are in many of the really ugly and bad processed foods. And while I admit that there is some debate as to the role salt plays in increasing blood pressure, let’s face it, salt found in concentrations at that level simply can’t be good for our bodies. In addition, salt consumed with added sugar has been found to be a double whammy. The combination sensitizes individuals to high blood pressure and increases the desire for food, often leading to overeating.
Whole grains are guilty by association…with refined grains. Refined grains don’t even come close to looking or acting like their original whole grain-selves. Many people who stop eating grains feel better but most of these people are actually reducing or eliminating the really ugly and bad processed foods containing refined grain products, giving whole grains a bad wrap. So don’t make this mistake and eliminate whole grains unless instructed to by your physician or a registered dietician. Whole grains have excellent health benefits while refined grains do not. Vitamins and minerals along with fiber are removed when grains are processed. And if you think that’s not such a big deal, let me throw some numbers out there for you: refining removes 86% of vitamin E and manganese, 85% of magnesium, 81% of niacin, 80% of riboflavin, 78% of zinc, 77% of thiamine and potassium, 76% of iron, and 72% of vitamin B6³. In addition, refining can remove nearly all of the fiber from grains. Besides keeping you regular, fiber acts as food for your microbiota which in turn keeps you healthy.
Good Health Benefits
So far I’ve only talked about some of the health disadvantages the really ugly and bad processed foods can have. It’s important to understand that the good processed foods have good health benefits. They can provide superior nutritional benefits, probiotics, and high concentrations of phytochemicals. Clearly, if you’re going to eat “processed foods” this is the category you want to eat.
Most people know what the really ugly processed foods are and that they’re bad for our health. But people are often surprised by the foods that fall into the “bad” processed food category. Many are even marketed as “healthy.” How do you know what foods to avoid? Look at the list above. If any of those show up in the ingredient list then proceed with caution. While no one should be consuming foods containing added trans-fat some people may be able to get away with eating some salty foods. The worst foods are those with a combination of ingredients from the list above, especially sugar, salt and fat. This is the trifecta of danger! Some purists like to say that if it has a barcode on it don’t buy/eat it but this is too limiting for most of us and there are many healthy foods with barcodes. Use your common sense, stick with whole foods when you can and choose healthier processed foods made from whole foods. And let’s face it, we’re all going to eat some uglies once in a while but don’t fret unless it becomes a habit, you’re likely to be fine.
Until next time, stay well!
Dr. Tobi Schmidt
1. The impact of red and processed meat consumption on cancer and other health outcomes: Epidemiological evidences. Food and Chemical Toxicology. Volume 92, June 2016, Pages 236–244.
2. Changes in intestinal tight junction permeability associated with industrial food additives explain the rising incidence of autoimmune disease. Autoimmunity Reviews. Volume 14, Issue 6, June 2015, Pages 479–489.
3. A Review of the Fundamentals of Diet. Global Advances in Health and Medicine. Volume 2, Number 1, January 2013, Pages 58-63.