Processed Food Isn’t Killing You

There’s a story that we’ve all been told for decades. It varies, but it goes something like this:

“If you want to be healthy, eat natural. Processing is awful, all those nasty chemicals, you don’t know what you’re eating!”

It’s usually followed by an in-depth description of someone’s newest paleo-keto-raw-juicing diet, because what’s a PKRJ diet without sharing it around to every single person you meet?

Remember: Washboard abs and annoying condescension don’t make themselves!

You see, we all know that processing is bad. It’s obvious. Just look at processed versus unprocessed food! A pizza is basically the embodiment of Satan’s temptation, and apples are a virtuous delight reserved for angels and people who work at soup kitchens.

Pictured: The One True Food

Which brings us nicely to the newest study to grace the headlines of virtually every news source from around the world.

Because, apparently, not only is processed food a bit high in fat and sugar, it is giving you cancer.

Pictured: Terrifying

But before you run screaming from MacDonalds and dive headfirst into a life of subsistence farming it’s worth taking a second look at the science behind all these stories.

Processed food isn’t that scary after all.

The Science

The study the media is talking about is a new piece of research that looks at the association between the amount of processed foods that people eat and how much cancer they get. It was done in France, and looked at the rates of three cancers: breast, prostate, and colorectal. They conducted some really quite amazing statistical analyses that showed that overall, increases in the amount of ultra-processed foods that people at were associated with increases in all cancers.

Basically, processed food is bad and gives you cancer.

Except it’s not quite that simple.

Nothing ever is

Dodgy Reports

Firstly, this was observational research. I’ve said this time and again, but observational research isn’t there to prove that one thing causes another. With a number of large studies such as this, in different areas, combined with animal models and some small RCTs you could draw a reasonable conclusion, but from a single large study it’s a bit of a reach.

More importantly, something that everyone missed is that the increase in cancer that this study found was tiny. It sounds terrible when you say “a 12% increase in cancer”, but this was based on a total number of 2,228 cancers in over 100,000 people. The base rate of cancer was ~0.5% per year, and the absolute difference between people who ate the most processed food and those who ate the least was roughly 0.1%.

These were also proportional hazard ratios. What this means is that they reflect an increase in risk for one thing happening when another thing increases. In this case, the 12% increase was based on a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed food that people were eating. In other words, you have a 12% increased risk of developing cancer for every 10% of your diet that you replace with ultra-processed food. Which is a huge amount. In real terms, that’s replacing your breakfast with hash browns every day, or having a french fry weekend every week.

French Fry Weekend is both a great idea and a terrible band name

There are other issues with making statements based on this study. The increase in risk didn’t actually hold true for all types of cancer. The study was entirely based on two self-report surveys, meaning that it’s possible that these results don’t actually reflect the amount of processed food that people were eating. People who ate more ultra-processed food were also unhealthy in many other ways — more likely to smoke, less likely to exercise, higher total fat/sugar intake — which means that it’s hard to make any definitive conclusions. It might just be that poor people, who are less able to access health services and are less well-off in many ways, also eat more processed food.

With such a small increase in risk, it’s far more likely that these results can be explained by social factors — say, poor people being less able to access healthy food — than by something to do with the food itself.

Which is not really that surprising. You see, ‘processed’ food is a bit of a meaningless category.

Processing Results

And here we come to the crux of the matter. This study may be scary, but it’s also based on something of a myth: the idea that processing food makes it significantly less healthy.

You see, the guidelines that designate foods into ‘processed’ versus ‘unprocessed’ don’t really differentiate based on how good the food is for you, but focus on things like packaging, preservatives, marketing, and profitability. This is a bit weird, because none of these things actually has an impact on your health.

There are even many examples of unprocessed foods that are far less good for you than processed ones. Fresh orange juice, for example, is considered a minimally processed or unprocessed food, despite being extremely high in sugar, whereas diet Coke is an ultra-processed food despite not having any sugar in it at all. As I found when I started trying to lose weight, the number of calories in fresh orange juice makes it a terrible thing to drink if you’re trying to be healthy. Similarly, ‘raw’ food bars can be both minimally processed and truly awful for your health (hint: if it’s soaked in honey, it’s probably not great to eat).

Ultimately, this is just another Big Scary Study that has been hyped to terrifying proportions. Is processed food bad for your health? Maybe. It depends on the food. Is unprocessed food good for your health? Again, maybe.

The study itself is a fascinating piece of work that will likely be built on in years to come, but to you? For your life? These results don’t really mean all that much. If you want advice on your diet, see a registered dietitian. They spend years in university learning how to give you the best possible advice on how to eat healthily.

But don’t worry about the odd chicken nugget.

The evidence suggests it isn’t going to harm you much, if at all.

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What is processed food?

Most foods are processed – changed, prepared or packaged – in some way before we eat them. They fall somewhere on a spectrum from minimally processed (like salad mix, bagged dry beans, roasted nuts or frozen fruits and vegetables) to what some nutrition experts refer to as highly or ultra processed (like ready-to-eat meals and snack foods).

Some processed foods have ingredients added, like sweeteners, oils, colors and preservatives. Some are fortified to add nutrients like fiber, calcium or vitamin D. Some are simply prepped for convenience (washed or chopped) or packaged to last longer. Processes such as pasteurizing milk, canning fruits and vegetables, and vacuum packing meats help prevent spoilage and increase food safety. Even foods labeled “natural” or “organic” can be processed.

If you eat a lot of highly processed foods, you risk getting too much sodium, added sugars and unhealthy fats. Highly processed foods contribute almost 60% of calories and 90% of added sugars in the American diet, according to a 2016 research study.

So what can you do if want to eat healthier? While it’s tempting to throw all “processed food” under the bus, the reality is you can’t avoid it entirely… nor should you! The key is knowing how to identify healthier processed foods and make smart choices in the grocery store and restaurants.

Choose healthier processed foods.

  • Read food labels. This is the best way to know exactly what’s in a processed food. Choose products without a lot of sodium, added sugars, and unhealthy fats. Learn what to look for in the Nutrition Facts label, ingredients list and other package claims.
  • Enjoy frozen and canned produce. Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are convenient and affordable options that can be just as nutritious as fresh. Look for varieties without salty sauces and sugary syrups. Compare label info and choose items with the lowest amounts of sodium and added sugars.
  • Look for the Heart-Check mark. The American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark will help you find packaged foods that can be part a healthy eating pattern. This red and white icon on the package means the food meets specific nutrition requirements for certification.
  • Make smart choices when eating out. Choose restaurants where food is cooked to order or there are designated healthier menu options. Communication is key. Ask how food is prepared, which items are made to order in-house vs. prepackaged, and if you can make substitutions. Request sauces, dressings and condiments on the side so you can decide how much is added.

Limit highly processed foods.

  • Cook more meals at home. You don’t have to be a master chef to get your cook on! You can find lots of great recipes and brush up on your cooking skills online. Preparing food at home gives you the control over what’s added to it. It can save you money and be a great family bonding time.
  • Swap out highly processed foods with less-processed options. Some examples: Make your own simple vinaigrette instead of buying bottled salad dressing. Add fruit to plain oatmeal, cereal and yogurt instead of buying the sweetened or flavored kind. Choose canned and frozen produce without salty sauces and sugary syrups. Slice up leftover roasted chicken or make a light tuna salad for sandwiches instead of using processed deli meat.
  • Grow fruits and vegetables. If space is a challenge, look at container, indoor or community gardening. You’ll love the taste of ultra-fresh produce, and kids may be more likely to try fruits and veggies they’ve helped grow! If you don’t have a green thumb, shop the local farmers’ market for fresh seasonal produce.
  • Snack smarter. Think crunchy nuts and seeds, cut-up veggies for dipping, fruits that hit the sweet spot, and easy homemade popcorn. Package up these healthier snacks in small containers and they’re just as convenient as that bag of chips!

Watch out for sneaky sodium.

About 70 percent of the sodium in the typical American diet comes from commercially processed and restaurant foods. In other words, we often don’t even know we’re eating it! And most of us are eating too much of it, which can lead to serious health problems.

Manufacturers use sodium to preserve foods and modify flavor, and it’s included in additives that affect the texture or color of foods. The food industry is becoming more aware that shoppers want less sodium in the products they make, but it’s still important to read the nutrition information on product packages.

Check how much sodium is in each serving. Compare brands and choose the product with the lowest amount of sodium.

Processed foods that can contribute a lot of sodium to your diet include breads, pizza, sandwiches, cold cuts and cured meats, soups, burritos and tacos, savory snacks, chicken, and cheese. And don’t rely on taste alone. Foods with excess sodium sometimes don’t taste salty, like some breads, cereals and pastries.

Learn the Salty Six – the top six sodium sources in the American diet – and how to find healthier options with less salt.

People in Canada consume almost 50% of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods, according to recent research commissioned by Heart & Stroke.

That means almost half of the food we eat every day has been significantly changed from its original state, with salt, sugar, fat, additives, preservatives and/or artificial colours added.
What we eat has a big impact on our health, and ultra-processed foods like candy, soft drinks, pizza and chips do not contain enough of the beneficial nutrients that the body requires. The more ultra-processed foods we eat, the poorer the overall nutritional quality of our diet.
But here’s the good news. Not every food that comes in a box is ultra-processed. Confused? I was too. But this list really helped me out. It’s a classification system called NOVA that was developed by an international panel of food scientists and researchers. It splits foods into four categories:

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed foods: Think vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits, nuts, meats, seafood, herbs, spices, garlic, eggs and milk. Make these real, whole foods the basis of your diet.
  • Processed foods: When ingredients such as oil, sugar or salt are added to foods and they are packaged, the result is processed foods. Examples are simple bread, cheese, tofu, and canned tuna or beans. These foods have been altered, but not in a way that’s detrimental to health. They are convenient and help you build nutritious meals. See? Not everything in a package is bad for you!
  • Ultra-processed foods: Here’s the category where almost 50% of our calories come from – and where we should cut back. These foods go through multiple processes (extrusion, molding, milling, etc.), contain many added ingredients and are highly manipulated. Examples are soft drinks, chips, chocolate, candy, ice-cream, sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged soups, chicken nuggets, hotdogs, fries and more.
How can I cut back on ultra-processed foods?

Cook more often: One major change in dietary patterns in the last 70 years has been the decline of home cooked meals, and the increase in ultra-processed foods. Tip the balance! Cook at home more often, without using ultra-processed ingredients (heating up frozen fried chicken doesn’t count).
Dine with friends and family: Real food, real talk, good company. That’s a winning combination for dinner – and studies show that people who dine together have better eating habits, such as enjoying more vegetables, fewer soft drinks, and less deep-fried food.

Cakes, potato chips and hamburgers are just some of the “ultra-processed” foods that researchers have claimed are drastically shortening life expectancies.

Researchers from Spain and France published their findings on the consumption of processed food in the British Medical Journal on Wednesday.

The Spanish study, from Navarra University, followed 19,899 people over two decades. It sorted processed foods into four categories ranging from unprocessed to ultra-processed – and found that those falling into the latter group were all linked to early deaths.

Eating five or more servings of ultra-processed foods per day increased the risk of mortality by 62%, the study’s authors claimed, with each additional serving increasing the mortality hazard by 18%. The main cause of death was cancer, with an average age of 58 at death.

“Processed meats, sugar sweetened beverages, dairy products, and French fries were the main foods contributing to the ultra-processed food consumed,” the report said.

However, the ultra-processed food category included a vast array of foods, such as:

  • Chocolate
  • Cookies
  • Potato chips
  • Pizza
  • Meatballs
  • Doughnuts
  • Mayonnaise
  • Margarine
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Milkshakes
  • Soda and sweetened drinks
  • Chicken nuggets
  • Croissants and pastries
  • Processed meat, like salami and hamburgers
  • Instant soups
  • Ice cream
  • Alcohol produced by distillation, like whisky and gin

Foods that had been processed to a lesser extent were also linked to mortality, the study said. The next highest-risk category covered foods which had substances added to them, such as salt or sugar, and which had been produced using methods like smoking or curing. Examples included canned vegetables, fruit in syrup, cheese, bread, and salted or sugared nuts.

335 deaths occurred among participants during the study, with those recording the highest consumption of ultra-processed foods most at risk of death.

Meanwhile, research published Wednesday by the University of Paris and the University of Montpellier monitored the dietary habits of 105,159 people over the age of 18 between 2009 and 2018.

The study concluded that there was a clear link between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and cardiovascular disease – which, according to the study’s authors, is the main cause of death worldwide.

Last year, a separate study from Paris’ Universite Sorbonne found a link between ultra-processed foods and cancer.

CNBC contacted a series of companies for comment, but spokespersons were not immediately available.

A spokesperson for British farming body the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board told CNBC via email Thursday: “This report is based on an associative study which would normally lead to or be the start of more detailed research. Health professionals continue to promote a combination of a healthy lifestyle and meat has its place in a balanced diet.”

Processed foods are a much bigger health problem than we thought

The case against processed food just keeps getting stronger. But, amazingly, we still don’t understand exactly why it’s so bad for us.

In two papers published in the BMJ in May 2019, the more ultraprocessed — or industrially manufactured — foods a person ate, the more likely they were to get sick and even die. In one study, they were more likely to suffer from cardiovascular problems. The other linked an ultraprocessed diet to a higher risk of death from all causes.

Those studies followed a first-of-its-kind randomized controlled trial, out of the National Institutes of Health: Researchers found people following an ultraprocessed diet ate about 500 more calories per day than those consuming minimally processed, whole foods. Then, a December paper in JAMA Internal Medicine found that the more ultraprocessed food a person ate, the higher their risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Sure, potato chips, cookies, and hot dogs are chock-full of salt, sugar, fat, and calories. They can cause us to gain weight and put us at a higher risk of diseases such as obesity.

But why? What if there’s something unique about ultraprocessed foods that primes us to overeat and leads to bad health?

A new, intriguing hypothesis offers a potential answer. Increasingly, scientists think processed foods, with all their additives and sugar and lack of fiber, may be formulated in ways that disturb the gut microbiome, the trillions of diverse bacteria lining our intestines and colon. Those disturbances, in turn, may heighten the risk of chronic disease and encourage overeating.

The idea sheds new light on why ultraprocessed foods seem to be so bad for us. But to understand the hypothesis, we need to first look at what ultraprocessed foods are, and how they shape the community of bacteria in our gut that’s so intimately linked to our health.

Ultraprocessed foods, explained

More than half of the calories Americans consume now come from ultraprocessed foods. But what exactly are they?

For starters, ultraprocessed foods look a lot different from the foods our great-great-great-grandmothers ate, as author Michael Pollan would say. They’re the frozen chicken nuggets at McDonald’s, the soda and sports drinks in just about every beverage fountain across the country, and the milkshakes masquerading as coffee at Starbucks.

According to a widely used scientific definition, they’re:

industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins), derived from food constituents (hydrogenated fats and modified starch), or synthesized in laboratories from food substrates or other organic sources (flavor enhancers, colors, and several food additives used to make the product hyper-palatable).

In other words, ultraprocessed foods are created in factories. They’re pumped full of chemicals and other additives for color, flavor, texture, and shelf life. This processing generally increases the flavor and caloric density of the foods, while stripping away the fiber, vitamins, and nutrients. So these foods are distinct from whole foods (like apples and cucumbers) and processed foods (like vegetables pickled in brine, or canned fish in oil) that rely on only salt, sugar, and oil — rather than a range of complicated additives — to preserve them or make them tastier.

Carlos Monteiro, a professor of nutrition and public health at the University of Sao Paulo, helped write the “ultraprocessed” definition in 2009, when he was working with the Brazilian government to understand how the emergence of a global industrial food system changed Brazilians’ eating habits. People started cooking less, eating out more, and relying on packaged products for their calories. “We realized that people were replacing freshly prepared dishes and meals,” he told Vox, “ ready-to-consume products based on sugar, fats and salt plus many ingredients of exclusive industrial use,” such as protein isolates, modified starches, and color additives.

That’s why pinpointing exactly what in ultraprocessed foods may increase the risk of disease is difficult. It’s hard to disentangle, for example, whether it’s the chemical additives in these foods, the calories they deliver, or the stuff they generally don’t contain, such as fiber. Or maybe it’s the contaminants in them, like plastics that leach from packaging. People who eat lots of processed foods may also be fundamentally different from people who avoid them. “We are dealing with something very complex,” Monteiro added.

What we eat shapes our gut flora

Considering the arrival of ultraprocessed foods fundamentally changed how we eat, researchers recently began to wonder what that was doing to our gut microbiome.

The majority of bacteria in our gut are benign or good for our health. They evolved with us to do things such as aid digestion and regulate the immune system. We’re only just beginning to understand how integral the microbiome is to our health. And to date, much of the science on the relationships between these bacteria and our health is focused on mice. Of the studies we have in humans, most of the findings are correlational.

But there’s one thing researchers already agree on: “Diet is the No. 1 influencer and determinant of our gut microbiome composition,” said Suzanne Devkota, director of microbiome research at the Cedars-Sinai F. Widjaja Foundation Inflammatory Bowel and Immunobiology Research Institute. They also generally agree that the more diversity of bacteria in the gut microbiome, the better for our health.

Devkota is among the researchers exploring how the influx of processed meats, cereals, and sugars into our diet has influenced both the type of bacteria and variety of them in the microbiome. Their findings are potential cause for concern.

When researchers have compared the microbiomes of mice eating a bland, low-fiber, high-fat diet (one that resembles Western-style, ultraprocessed food) to mice eating a fiber-enriched high-fat diet, the two sets of rodents had distinctly different microbiomes: Mice on the low-fiber diet had a marked reduction in the total numbers of bacteria in their gut and a less diverse microbiome compared to the mice on the high-fiber diet.

The mouse findings echo the few studies we have in humans. Researchers who analyzed stool samples from people living in less industrialized hunter-gatherer cultures — where ultraprocessed foods are uncommon — and compared them with stool samples from people in industrialized countries, uncovered a strong pattern: The further away people were from industrialization and ultraprocessed foods, the more diverse their gut micriobiome was.

Similarly, when researchers sequenced the DNA of calcified dental plaque, they found the bacterial colony in the oral cavities of humans from Neolithic and medieval times were a lot more diverse than postindustrial modern humans. “Major changes in carbohydrate intake in human history appear to have impacted the ecosystem of the mouth,” the researchers wrote.

“The thing you can generally say is that in states of health, the microbiota has a high level of diversity in a wide variety of different species,” said Andrew Gewirtz, a professor at Georgia State University’s Center for Inflammation Immunity and Infection. “And a lot of these tend to get lost in diets that are highly processed.”

The possible problem with emulsifiers and refined sugars in junk food

There’s also a — when the body’s inflammatory response goes into overdrive, making it harder to fight off viruses and disease. One measure of inflammation is a blood marker called C-reactive protein (CRP). Researchers have found associations between higher levels of CRP and various chronic illnesses, including cancer, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. And people who eat an unhealthy diet tend to have higher levels of CRP in their bodies.

So why exactly are these foods linked to less diversity in the microbiome, and more inflammation and disease?

One theory: Key ingredients, such as emulsifiers and refined sugars, impair the microbial life in our gut, instead of helping it flourish.

Emulsifiers are additives used to stabilize ultraprocessed foods. They help the oil and vinegar in a bottled salad dressing stay mixed, and keep ice cream from forming ice and crystallizing in the freezer. For a study that was published in 2015, Gewirtz and his colleagues hypothesized that widely used emulsifiers — specifically carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80 — might disturb the microbiome and increase inflammation.

And that’s exactly what they found. Mice that had a genetic predisposition to colitis, a chronic, inflammatory bowel disease, developed the disease faster when exposed to emulsifiers. Mice that didn’t have that predisposition but were also emulsifier-exposed developed low-grade inflammation and mild obesity. Gewirtz said he thinks the friendly microbes in the gut may view emulsifiers as a toxic chemical that “antagonizes” the microbiome and causes it “not to live well with the host.”

“As best we can tell, at doses that seem to be reasonable mimics of exposure to emulsifiers in humans, the emulsifiers promoted inflammatory diseases in mice,” said Gewirtz, who is now working on a similar study in humans. But the mouse evidence was compelling enough that forthcoming dietary recommendations for inflammatory bowel disease suggest people avoid emulsifiers.

Another theory, outlined in a recent review paper on the effects of the Western diet on the microbiome, is that the sugar in ultraprocessed foods may feed harmful bacteria in the gut, causing them to bloom.

“These refined carbohydrates could be feeding the bad bacteria in the small intestine,” said the paper’s lead study author, Marit Zinocker, “and that’s where inflammation starts. Animal studies have shown that if you increase the amount of simple sugars in the diet, that’ll change the growth potential of bacteria in the gut.”

Zinocker emphasized that the emulsifier and refined carbohydrate hypotheses are just two potential explanations for why ultraprocessed foods are unhealthy — and there’s still a lot scientists have to learn. For now, though, researchers have figured out that it’s not just what’s added to processed foods that may hurt the gut microbiome. It’s also what’s missing.

The lack of fiber in ultraprocessed foods may harm us too

Because our intestines can’t directly digest fiber, we’ve long seen fiber as beneficial for relieving constipation by adding bulk to stool and promoting regular bowel movements. But that “was before people how much the non-digestible things we eat impact our gut bacteria,” said University of Michigan microbiologist Eric Martens when I spoke to him for a feature on fiber.

Researchers now consider fiber’s role in nourishing our gut microbiome to be one of its main health benefits. They don’t yet fully understand why fiber is so good for our gut, but they have some ideas.

Fermentable fibers, which include all soluble fibers and some insoluble fibers, are metabolized or fermented by bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. That process produces chemicals, including short-chain fatty acids, that are important food sources for our gut bacteria.

They also carry health benefits, Martens said. Short-chain fatty acids have been shown to promote insulin production so we can better manage the spikes of sugar (or glucose) in our blood, for example, helping to manage Type 2 diabetes. In addition, they seem to have anti-inflammatory properties.

“When we don’t consume enough fiber, we are essentially starving our gut microbiome,” Jens Walter, a researcher who studies fiber at the University of Alberta, told me, “which is likely detrimental for a variety of reasons. We also probably lose diversity.”

That lack of diversity linked with a low-fiber diet might affect the mucus layer in the gut. Mucus acts as a protective barrier between us and the outside world. It’s constantly being replenished by secretions from the cells that make up our intestines, and it’s covered with a layer of bacteria, part of our microbiome. Fiber feeds the bacteria on top of the mucus layer as it passes through, helping keep our microbiomes robust, Gewirtz said.

Another fiber study, again in mice, showed what happens when the bacteria in the digestive tract don’t get any fiber. Researchers, including Martens, found the bacteria begin to eat away at the mucus layer, bringing them into closer contact with the intestinal tissue. “The hypothesis is if we stop feeding the microbiome , the bacteria will resort more frequently to digesting that mucus barrier as a source of nutrients.”

If bacteria eating up the mucus layer sounds bad, well, it is. The mucus layer keeps out pathogens, and the researchers were able to show that if they introduced a pathogen in the context of a low-fiber diet, it had an easier time getting into the intestine and causing an infection. “The lack of a mucus barrier made the disease get much worse much quicker,” Martens added. “It may irritate the tissue or provoke immune responses,” leaving the mice more vulnerable to disease.

Why microbiome disturbances may cause people to eat more

The microbiome idea may also help explain why highly processed diets cause people to eat more, Gewirtz said. “Antagonizing the microbiota by highly processed diets — starving it by removing fiber and attacking it — promotes inflammation.” That can hamper the body’s ability to feel satiated and result in overeating. For example, he explained, eating causes the body to release the hormone leptin, which quells hunger. But inflammation interferes with leptin’s action.

“Put another way, our results do not question the notion that the obesity epidemic is driven by overeating,” he added. “Rather, it suggests that such overeating is driven, in part, by alterations in the microbiome inducing inflammation.”

Researchers still have a lot to untangle here. But should we wait to better understand precisely why ultraprocessed food is bad for us before we start regulating it?

Brazil’s Monteiro thinks lawmakers should act now and figure out how to make unprocessed foods more accessible and affordable, while taxing ultraprocessed foods and regulating the marketing around them.

“We started to have policies to make people smoke less or to avoid smoking before we knew all the problems caused by smoking,” he said. Similarly, with ultraprocessed foods, he argued, health authorities shouldn’t wait until every mechanism is known. “We’re in a situation where you have so many ultraprocessed foods and so many diseases related to ultraprocessed foods,” Monteiro said. If we try to answer every question about these products, we’ll never regulate them. And given the mounting evidence of harm, delayed action increasingly looks like it’ll cost health dollars and lives.

Avoid these 10 ultra-processed foods!

How I classify processed foods

I like to divide processed foods into four categories:

  1. Minimally processed

These are nutritious items such as pre-cut and peeled pumpkin, potatoes and other veges, bagged salad leaves, bagged spinach, sliced vegetables, and unsalted, roasted nuts — often simply prepped for cooking convenience. These preserve freshness, improve taste and save us time.

  1. Lightly processed

These are also nutritious and convenient for busy folk. They include those foods that have been canned, dried or frozen such as dried fruit, canned legumes, cheese, pasta, canned sardines, frozen peas and other vegetables, pasteurised milk, bran cereal, yoghurt. They supply nutrients and make foods available out of season. You can still recognise the ingredients that go into them.

  1. Heavily processed

This is food that’s not in its original form or food that is not naturally occurring such as deli meats, many breakfast cereals, grain bars, oils, sugars and flours. Plus those culinary ingredients such as salt, butter or sugar and food industry ingredients such as maltodextrin and citric acid.

  1. Ultra-processed

These are what you and I would recognise as ‘junk food’. These are the items that give all processing a bad name. Often dubbed “convenience foods”, they include pre-made easy snacks like chips, fries, biscuits, chocolates, sweets, nuggets, energy bars, and carbonated and sugared sweet drinks.

Increased snacking

Since the 1990s, ‘Big Snack’— the multi-national manufacturers of packaged, long shelf-life snacks designed to displace meals—have greatly increased their penetration, first of high-income countries like the USA, UK, Australia and NZ, and lately of lower-income countries like Peru, Chile, Mexico, India, China and many nations of Africa and Asia.

It’s all on a spectrum

All processed foods fall on a spectrum from minimally to heavily processed. However, the ones I think you should avoid to protect your health are these ultra-processed (UPFs) products that are unhealthy and tend to damage the nutritional quality of the diet.

Not all processing is bad

Not all processed food is unhealthy but most people think of it as ‘bad for you’. Cooking, canning, freezing and drying are all processing methods with both good and bad sides. For instance, processing increases the availability of lycopene (a key antioxidant) in tomato sauce (good) but adds unwanted salt and sugar (bad).

What’s wrong with UPFs?

Here are the 10 nutritional problems identified by researchers. UPFs are ready-to-eat snacks that:

  1. taste so good it’s hard to stop eating them once you open the packet, often claimed to be the basis of food addiction
  2. are high in kilojoules or Calories
  3. are high in added sugar, added salt, with bad fats and numerous undesirable flavours, colours and preservatives
  4. are low in vitamins and minerals
  5. have had their fibre taken out
  6. are mostly made, advertised and sold by large multi-national companies
  7. are ready to consume, requiring no preparation which is an enormous advantage over fresh and perishable whole foods
  8. have a long shelf life with a low bacterial count so they’re safe to eat for ages
  9. lack ‘soul’ and connection to their raw ingredients
  10. lack satisfaction long-term as they are rapidly digested and absorbed.

UPFs have been blamed for obesity and are now a term used as shorthand to denote disapproval for a product. What they mean is that ultra-processed products are mostly unhealthy. Studies show they tend to damage the nutritional quality of diets and to increase the risk of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease although there is disagreement about this effect. .

Ultra Processed Foods are created from substances extracted from whole foods such as the cheap parts or remnants of animals plus inexpensive ingredients such as refined starches, sugars, fats and refined oils, flavours, preservatives and colours.

Fresh vs processed

Compare the fresh original food with its processed counterpart in this table. Processed foods often equate with convenience at the cost of nutritional benefit.

Fresh, real food

Processed end product

Strawberries

Strawberry fruit straps or fruit fix, strawberry topping, strawberry shakes

Corn on the cob

Canned corn kernels, popped corn, corn starch, corn syrup, corn chips

Orange

Citrus jellies, orange cordial, orange soft drink e.g. Fanta

Banana

Banana cake, banana lollies, banana syrup topping

Potato

Potato chips, fries, wedges, crisps

Tomatoes

Tomato puree, paste, soup, sauce

My 10 worst UPFs to avoid

  1. Fizzy soft drink
  2. Chocolate-hazelnut spread e.g. Nutella
  3. ‘Pods’ and similar sweet baked snacks
  4. Potato crisps
  5. Corn chips
  6. Instant noodles
  7. Sweet biscuits and biscuit-like snacks
  8. Processed cheese sticks
  9. Flavoured, sugary alcoholic drinks such as Breezers and Cruisers based on spirits like rum, bourbon, whiskey, gin and vodka
  10. Muesli bars, energy bars, protein bars, roll-ups.

The bottom line

Remember that UPFs are convenient, portable, shelf-stable and mess-free. They are easy to overeat, hit all our bliss points, and are more-ish. There is no need for cutlery or crockery. They save us time and provide something quick AND cheap. Steer clear of them whenever you can.

The Pros and Cons of “Processed Foods”

Not all processed foods are products to avoid. Here’s how to shop smart.

The next time someone rails against the evils of processed foods—such as proponents of the current “eating clean” fad—keep in mind that “processed foods” include:

– pasteurized milk

– prewashed lettuce and spinach

– canned beans

– oatmeal

– “baby” carrots

– frozen and canned fish

– frozen fruits and vegetables

– yogurt.

“You hear the term ‘processed food’ thrown around a lot these days, but you have to use common sense,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, director of Tufts’ HNRCA Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory and executive editor of the Health & Nutrition Letter. “Even though technically ‘processed,’ pasteurized milk is safer than unpasteurized. Frozen produce, because it’s picked and frozen at the peak of freshness and ‘processed’ quickly, is as nutritious as fresh or in many cases more so. And if the convenience of ripping open a bag of baby-cut carrots makes you more likely to snack on them instead of chips or cookies while preparing dinner, that’s good fallout from processing.”

The US government defines “processed food” as “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration or milling.” Basically, that encompasses anything that has been altered from its original state beyond basic cleaning, brushing off dirt or removing leaves and stems. Even polished apples might be considered “processed,” and peeled or pre-cut fruits are definitely processed, however minimally. Any food that contains added salt, sugar, fat or additives or that has been mixed with other ingredients is considered processed, too. (That includes something like iodized salt, which has essentially wiped out goiter in the US.)

SAFETY AND NUTRIENTS: Apart from the advantages of convenience, processed food may be safer because contaminants have been removed (as in prewashed salad greens) or destroyed (as in pasteurized milk). Many processed foods also last longer without spoiling or becoming unsafe to eat.

Cutting and chopping produce can make some nutrients more available to the body by breaking down cell walls (though it speeds deterioration of water-soluble nutrients). So can heating, including the heat of canning, although heat also destroys some vitamins: The lycopene in canned tomatoes and tomato sauces is more accessible than in fresh, uncooked tomatoes.

Freezing not only locks in the nutrients of fruits and vegetables, but makes them affordably available all year long. Frozen vegetables are easy to quickly add to a stir-fry or stew, making it more likely fruit and vegetable recommendations will be met.

Freezing makes seafood more readily available, too. Unless you live near a coast, flash-frozen seafood is the best way to meet recommendations to eat two fish meals per week.

DIETARY DOWNSIDES: Not all the news about processed foods is good, of course, or nutrition experts wouldn’t spend so much time warning against them. Food that has been highly modified, with lots of added calories, including saturated fat, sugars and starches, has helped fuel the obesity epidemic and Americans’ worst eating habits.

A recent study, in fact, sought to quantify the contribution of moderately and highly processed foods to unhealthy dietary trends. Published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the study analyzed purchases of packaged goods for 157,142 US households from 2000-2012, classifying the contents of more than 1.2 million products. Jennifer M. Poti, PhD, of the University of North Carolina, and colleagues concluded that highly processed foods and beverages contributed 61% of the calorie intake of those households. Moderately processed items added another 16%, for a total of more than three-quarters of average calories. Highly processed and ready-to-eat products were significantly higher in saturated fat, sugar and sodium.

What counts as a “highly processed” product? There is no official government definition. Poti and colleagues used the definition of “multi-ingredient industrially formulated mixtures processed to the extent that they are no longer recognizable as their original plant or animal source.” Among the highly processed foods that contributed the most calories in the study were refined breads, grain-based desserts, sugar-sweetened beverages, salty snacks, candy, ready-to-eat cereals, ice cream, mayonnaise, salad dressing, pasta sauce, ketchup, margarine and shortening.

“Moderately processed” foods were defined two ways: those processed only by the addition of flavors but otherwise recognizable as their original plant or animal sources, and grain products such as whole-wheat breads and cereals with no added sweeteners or fat.

But a 2012 study of processed foods in the US diet led by Heather Eicher-Miller, PhD, of Purdue University suggested that processing is not a major determinant of a food’s contribution to dietary intake. That study concluded that “no processing category contains foods that are uniformly ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy.’”

The Pros

Recently I did some filming for a new one off television documentary (will share more details when I’ve been given the nod to talk about it) all about ‘processed foods’.

The topic of processed foods is such a controversial one, and one that often stirs up a lot of emotions in people and so I knew that I wanted to approach it from a very balanced point of view.

In the UK we are a “ready meal nation” with nearly half of all ready meals created in Europe being consumed in the UK. However, processed foods and ready meals get a lot of negative press, which, whilst often justified and based on evidence that high intakes of processed foods are not great, can also be exaggerated and miss important points about the benefits of processed foods to our life/health too.

Before you stop reading, scream at the screen or decide to banish me to the list of “industry shrills”, I’m going to explain why and write about the side of processed foods that we rarely get to hear about.

The benefits of processed food

Feeding plenty:

In a world where we have thousands of mouths to feed every single day, the processing of food is not only helpful, but in some cases it is essential. Almost all foods are processed in some way before they are consumed – think chopping, freezing, blending, cooking. But what counts as “processed food” is really variable and often depends hugely on an individual’s own ideas of what processed means.

For example, many people don’t think of frozen vegetables, free-from foods, honey or even energy balls as being ‘processed’, but some of these go through multiple processing methods before they are ready to eat.

Food variety:

Without processed foods, we would never have the huge variety of foods that we have available to us today. We can visit the supermarket and have our pick of a huge array of different foods from nuts to beans and pulses to plant-based proteins such as Quorn and tofu as well as huge variety in crisps, breakfast cereals and jams. In some ways this HUGE choice can be concerning, but it has to be said that we are very lucky to have such a variety available to us every single day.

Safe foods:

Importantly, processing also makes our food safe to eat. For example, when milk is pasteurised, this is done simply to destroy any harmful bacteria that may be lurking in the raw product. Pasteurising ensures that any bacteria isn’t allowed to grow, contaminate milk for sale and potentially make consumers unwell. Additionally, raw kidney beans contain an inedible protein that needs to be removed before they are safe to consume. Heating the beans helps to ensure they are edible and safe for consumption.

“Never before have we had such an abundance of safe, and healthy food available to us around the world.” (Anon)

And, now comes the most controversial one of all…

Food processing helps us to consume more healthy food options:

Yes. I said it. Processed foods can actually encourage us to consume more variety and a variety of healthier options too. For example freezing fruits and vegetables can help encourage many more people to consume the recommended 5 A Day. Frozen fruits and vegetables are a very quick and healthy option to add to dinners, soups, cereals and smoothies and the freezing process actually helps to lock in nutrients that may otherwise be lost in fresh fruit and veg.

On top of this, many foods are often fortified with nutrients during processing. For example plant-based milks are often low in calcium, B-vitamins and iodine but many manufacturers choose to voluntarily fortify their milks with these vitamins and minerals to help make them more nutritionally comparable to cow’s milk. Without this fortification, those choosing plant-milks for allergy, cultural or welfare reasons may be at risk of having low intakes in some of the nutrients present in cow’s milk.

Additionally the fortification of white and brown (not wholemeal) flour with iron, thiamine and niacin is enforced by law in the UK, and this helps to ensure that these breads offer nutrients that may be removed during their processing.

Palatability:

Last but not least, processing foods helps our foods to be much more palatable…which leads me on nicely to talk more about the negatives of processed foods which will be what I post about in next week’s blog.

Take home:

Processed foods can be of benefit to many people, helping to provide safe, healthy food to vast numbers in the population. Different processes help to preserve foods and lock nutrients in as well as add extra vitamins and minerals. Of course processed foods do often have higher amounts of salt, sugar, saturated fats and lower levels of fibre and micronutrients and we will cover more on this in Processed Foods: The pros and cons 2.

Here is an interesting finding from a recent market study. 1500 consumers across all demographics in the US were surveyed by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) and Artemis Strategy Group. The news:

43% of consumers have a negative attitude towards processed foods.

But what exactly is processed food?

And is a processed food bad for you by default?

What you need to know:

Food processing is a set of methods and techniques used to transform raw food ingredients into consumable food. Food processing can be as simple as cutting up some vegetables to prepare a salad, or as complex as manufacturing a Twinkie in multiple processing facility.

From the early days of food processing, the primary goal was to extend the life of a foodstuff, by acting as a preservative. This helped balance humans’ need to eat daily with nature’s trend to provide crops only during certain times of the year. To this day, extending shelf life is one of the most important reasons food manufacturers add so many weird sounding ingredients to products.

One of the first forms of food processing, dating back to BC, was the salting of meats as a means of preservation. Sugar was introduced much later as a preservative for fruit, and thus the jam was born. Keeping food cold, either underground, or by using ice, was an effective, if primitive method of preservation until the ascent of ice boxes and recently electrical refrigeration.

In the early 19th century a new technology was introduced to vacuum bottles of food for French troops. It would lead to the use of tin cans a decade later and thus the canning industry was born.

Pasteurization, another French invention from the mid 19th century, greatly improved the safety of milk and milk products, as well as increasing their shelf life. (Let’s not get into the raw milk debate in this post).

It was only in the industrialized 20th century, and more prominently after World War II, that a third and crucial factor became the driving force behind food processing – convenience. With legions of moms joining the work force, there was less time to toil in the kitchen, and a demand for quick, easy to prepare foods skyrocketed.

Additional benefits of food processing include lower prices to consumers due to the economies of scale of mass manufacturing, increased availability of a wide variety of foods, and a consistency in taste, texture, and mouth feel.

With so many advantages to food processing, one may ask why is almost every other American so bearish on processed foods?

Here are a few reasons:

The further a food product is from its natural form, the less it retains its healthful nutritional properties. Vitamins evaporate, minerals are leached, and fiber is long forgotten.

True, the decrease in nutrients has led to enrichment and fortification, but these add only a small number of nutrients back to a product, where hundreds of others are lost in translation from the original orange to the orange drink in a plastic bottle.

Increasing shelf life requires the use of preservatives, whether natural ones such as salt, or artificial chemicals that have more specific functions (mold inhibitors, bacteria killers, antioxidants, antimicrobial chemicals, etc…). Some of these preservatives have adverse side affects on some or all human populations.

In order to make food more palatable and attractive, additives are used. Food colorings are a huge category of additives. The color of a food is an important psychological consideration. But in many cases, the color of the processed product is not as bold as expected by the consumer. Take strawberry yogurts. Almost all manufacturers add some sort of coloring, whether a natural red color such as beet juice, a natural but quirky bug juice, or artificial Red #40. Despite studies that have shown correlation between food colorings and cognitive problems in children, the food industry uses them because they are cheaper than natural sources.

And since cost has become a driving factor in consumer consideration, food companies are constantly on the lookout for cheaper manufacturing techniques and cheaper source ingredients. Anything that can be made in a lab is cheaper than a naturally sourced ingredient. Substituting quality ingredients with cheaper or inferior standbys is the only way to keep prices down. Don’t even ask what parts of animal carcasses go into your baloney.

Farm subsidies in the US have made corn and soy products very cheap. Guess what – soy oil and high fructose corn syrup are found in many processed items. They add the fat and sweet components that make so many junk foods tasty to us. Salt is natural and cheap, but excessive consumption causes hypertension and other health problems.

We haven’t talked about processing that takes place before the “ingredients” are harvested (GMO crops, hormones and antibiotics to for livestock, etc..), but these too are affecting the food we eat, in ways that science has yet to get a full grasp of.

What to do at the supermarket:

You know our position – the more you can do to prepare your food from scratch, the better service you’re providing to your family. Buying fresh or frozen produce and whipping up a soup, a salad, or a pasta sauce is not rocket science and does not require hours of kitchen work.

But hey, we’re pragmatists too. Try to find the balance that best works for you. But the next time you complain about not having enough time to cook, consider how much time you spend watching TV and on Facebook.

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Here are some interesting findings from a recent survey about processed foods. 1500 consumers across all demographics in the US were surveyed by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) and Artemis Strategy Group.

43% of consumers have a negative attitude towards processed foods, a term which carries a negative perception.

What is processed food? Is a processed food bad by default?

Food processing is a set of methods and techniques used to transform raw food ingredients into consumable food. Food processing can be as simple as cutting up some vegetables to make a salad, or as complex as creating a Twinkie in a mega processing facility.

From the early days of food processing, the primary goal was to extend the life of a foodstuff, by acting as a preservative. This helped balance humans’ need to eat daily with nature’s trend to provide crops only during certain times of the year. To this day, extending shelf life is one of the most important reasons food manufacturers add so many ominous sounding ingredients to products.

One of the first forms of food processing, dating back to BC, was the salting of meats as a means of preservation. Sugar was introduced much later as a preservative for fruit, and thus the jam was born. Keeping food cold, either underground, or by using ice, was an effective, if primitive method of preservation until the ascent of ice boxes and recently electrical refrigeration.

In the early 19th century a new technology was introduced to vacuum bottles of food for French troops. It would lead to the use of tin cans several decades later.

Pasteurization, another French invention, greatly improved the safety of milk and milk products, as well as increasing their shelf life.

It was only after World War II that a third and crucial factor became the driving force behind food processing – convenience. With legions of moms joining the work force, there was less time to toil in the kitchen, and a demand for quick, easy to prepare foods skyrocketed.

Additional benefits of food processing include lower prices to consumers due to the economies of scale of mass manufacturing, increased availability of a wide variety of foods, and a consistency in taste, texture, and mouth feel.

With so many advantages to food processing, why is almost every other American so bearish on processed foods?

Here are a few reasons:

The farther a food product is from its natural form, the less it retains its healthful nutritional properties. Vitamins evaporate, minerals are leached, and fiber is long forgotten.

The decrease in nutrients has led to enrichment and fortification, but these add only a small number of nutrients back to a product, where hundreds of others are lost in translation from the original orange to the orange drink in a plastic bottle.

Increasing shelf life requires the use of preservatives, whether natural ones such as salt, or artificial chemicals that have more specific functions (mold inhibitors, bacteria killers, antioxidants, antimicrobial chemicals, etc…). Some of these preservatives have adverse side affects on some or all human populations.

In order to make food more palatable and attractive, additives are used. The color of a food is an important psychological consideration. But in many cases, the color of the processed product is not as bold as expected by the consumer. Take most strawberry yogurts. Almost all add some sort of coloring, whether a natural red color such as beet juice, a natural but irky bug juice color, or artificial Red #40. Despite studies that have shown correlation between food colorings and cognitive problems in children, the food industry uses them because they are cheaper than natural sources.

And since cost has become a driving factor in consumer consideration, food companies are constantly on the lookout for cheaper manufacturing techniques and cheaper source ingredients. Anything that can be made in a lab is cheaper than a naturally sourced ingredient. Substituting quality ingredients with cheaper or inferior standbys is the only way to keep prices down. Don’t even ask what parts of animal carcasses go into your baloney.

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Processed foods, defined by the National Health Service (NHS) as “any food that has been altered in some way during preparation,” have long been considered public enemy number one in the realm of nutrition. Meals and snacks high in salt, fat, and sugar have been linked to growing rates of obesity, but a study published Thursday marks the first time a randomized and controlled trial has demonstrated that eating these foods drives people to over-consume and gain weight. So is processed food bad for you? The answer is a data-driven “yes.”

To conduct the study, researchers enlisted 20 adults (10 men and 10 women) to stay at the National Institutes of Health for two weeks. Participants ate either a diet of whole foods or a diet of only ultra-processed foods. By the end of the experiment, those in the latter group ate an average of 508 calories more each day, and ended up gaining two pounds on average by the end of the experiment.

The finding is truly a breakthrough in nutritional science, Barry Popkin, PhD, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina tells NPR. “The difference in weight gain for one and weight loss for the other during these two periods is phenomenal,” he says. “We haven’t seen anything like this.”

“We haven’t seen anything like this.”

What’s even more interesting is that study participants across both groups consumed meals with equivalent amounts of calories, fats, protein, carbohydrates, fiber, sugar, and salt. But because both processed and non-processed food eaters could choose how much or how little they consumed, researchers were able to observe that those on the processed diet ate more. Plus, they tended to eat faster and rated the meals as less tasty than those of the other group who ate whole foods. “When you match the diets for all of those nutrients, something about the ultra-processed foods still drives this big effect on calorie intake,” says Kevin Hall, PhD, a senior scientist at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

As always, the study’s small population size means that nutrition scientists haven’t yet washed their hands of researching this topic. Larger studies will be needed to confirm the findings, but since the study was controlled—and because it echoes earlier suspicions about the health effects of processed foods—it provides further understanding about how we fuel our bodies.

“We should try to eat as much real food as we can. That can be plant food. It can be animal food. It can be beef, pork, chicken, fish or vegetables and fruits.”

Dr. Popkin’s advice is loud and clear: “We should try to eat as much real food as we can. That can be plant food. It can be animal food. It can be beef, pork, chicken, fish or vegetables and fruits. And one has to be very careful once one begins to go into other kinds of food.”

If you’re interested in cutting processed foods out of your diet, check out this step-by-step guide. BTW, research has found that adding healthy foods to your diet is just as important as what you take out.

Much of the food we eat today has been processed in some fashion. Technically speaking, the bag of pre-washed spinach greens that has permanent residency in my fridge is a processed food. Making life in the kitchen less stressful — not to mention healthy eating much easier — is the gift of modern food processing, but the system isn’t made up entirely of bagged lettuce and frozen fruit (another form of processing). Let’s take a closer look at processed food and how it might be harmful to your health.

What counts as processed food?

Anything that takes a trip through a manufacturing plant is technically a processed food. Food may be processed for a number of reasons: to prevent spoilage (allowing you to keep items in your fridge or pantry longer); to make it more convenient (pre-washed salad greens, canned beans, and frozen fruits and veggies are prime examples); to improve flavor or texture by using certain additives; and to boost vitamin or mineral content (such the nutrients added to enriched, refined grains). Food might also be processed to keep it safer, say, by killing potentially harmful pathogens. For example, nitrates are added to certain cured meats and poultry to inhibit Clostritium botulinum, a life-threatening bacteria.

While I certainly appreciate the advantages of processing food — less kitchen stress and a reduced risk of deadly bacteria are appealing! — there are downsides to processing as well.

What’s an ultra-processed food?

There are degrees of processing and while there’s no standard definition, essentially, an ultra-processed food is farther removed from its natural state. One classification system — NOVA, developed at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil — defines processed foods as modified whole foods with just two or three ingredients, which are usually used to make whole foods last longer or taste better. Examples of processed foods might be canned tuna (perhaps processed with salt and oil) or cheese.

By comparison, they suggest that ultra-processed foods are formulations that are made with sugars, oils, fats, or salt, and that have little, if any, intact whole foods. These foods take a longer trip down the manufacturing process and may contain ingredients designed to make them more convenient or especially tasty.

This classification system may be a useful research tool, and may even be helpful in guiding your own decisions, but it’s still a bit of a loose categorization in my opinion. For example, they group white pasta — which lacks intact grains and includes added nutrients to make up for what was lost during processing — as minimally processed; I’d place it squarely in the more processed camp. (I took an informal poll among some RD friends who agreed with this assessment.)

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Even whole foods can be processed to varying degrees, and oats are a fine example of this. On one end, you have steel cut oats, which take a longer time to cook because they’ve been less processed; at the other end, you have instant oatmeal, which has been steamed and rolled to make it cook more quickly. Further processing of oatmeal might involve adding sugars and then additional processing might include flavor additives.

According to researchers, a better way to assess how processed your food is might be to inspect the ingredient list for added sugars and industrial ingredients that you wouldn’t find in your kitchen. Examples of these ingredients include (but aren’t limited to) soy protein isolate, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, gluten, maltodextrin, inulin, and gums. These ingredients should tip you off to the fact that the product has taken a pretty long trip through a manufacturing process and have entered the highly processed zone.

The best way to lose weight boils down to these three things

May 31, 201802:11

Why is processed food less healthful?

Though there’s no unified agreement over what foods fall in the heavily processed camp, there is widespread agreement that eating more whole foods is good advice. Evidence is steadily streaming in that processed foods are linked with weight problems and poorer health. That may be because these foods are often packed with sodium and/or sugar, which are linked to health troubles on their own. Or it may be that heavily processed foods contain additives, pro-inflammatory oils, or refined grains, all of which can be problematic. To be fair, much of the research we have doesn’t prove cause and effect — just that there’s a link, though it makes logical and perhaps even biological sense. We’re just not sure what biological mechanisms are at play.

A new study offers some proof — in this case, that these heavily processed foods might cause you to gain weight. 20 volunteers were placed on a heavily processed or a minimally processed diet for two weeks (volunteers participated in both diets in random order). The meals they ate were closely matched for calories, fiber, sugar, fat, carbs, and protein with the difference being the types of foods that were offered at mealtimes. A heavily processed breakfast might be a bagel and cream cheese; a less processed one might be unsweetened oatmeal, fruit, and nuts. Though the meals were matched for nutrients, participants could eat as much (or little) as they liked.

In the end, they gained weight when eating ultra-processed foods and they lost it when eating less processed foods. And remember, these were the same people! They tended to eat faster when consuming more processed meals and ultimately ate an average of 500 calories more per day eating those foods, gaining an average of two pounds during the short study period.

What’s troubling is that highly processed foods make up a big part of our diets — up to 60 percent of the calories we consume by some accounts. Not surprisingly, foods that fall in the ultra-processed camp also contribute nearly 90 percent of added sugars to our diets. These foods are low in nutritional quality and have been linked with a higher rate of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain forms of cancer, and GI diseases — basically, a vast spectrum of health concerns. They’ve also been linked with unfavorable shifts in your gut microbiome that might promote inflammatory diseases.

What can I eat?

Remember that processing is a spectrum so cutting way back on heavily processed foods doesn’t mean you have to give up convenience or packaged foods. You can still rely on conveniently packaged whole or very minimally processed foods, like quinoa, canned beans, nuts, nut butters, and fruits and vegetables (such as frozen, dried, or unseasoned canned versions).

And recall that what experts do agree on is that basing your diet on more whole foods (and especially plant-based ones) and limiting added sugars, excess sodium, and heavily processed grains and snack foods is a healthful habit. Here are some pointers to help you on that front:

  • Replace processed deli meats (even chicken and turkey) with leftover dinner meats or fresh meats (like a store-bought rotisserie chicken or store-bought fresh roasted turkey).
  • Consider snacking on fresh or lightly processed foods over chips and other typical fare. Examples include nuts and seeds, roasted chickpeas, yogurt, fruit, boiled eggs, veggies, and plant-based dips, like hummus and guacamole.
  • Go for water or flavored seltzer over juice drinks, soda, and other sugary sips. If you’re not ready to go cold turkey, maybe add a splash of juice to a fizzy water.
  • Plan ahead. One thing that makes ultra-processed foods so appealing is how quickly they cook up on busy weeknights. When you have easy-to-assemble ingredients handy, you don’t need to rely on those kinds of packaged foods to solve your last-minute dinner dilemma. The beauty of planning ahead is that while it may take a little time in advanced, it spares you even more time in the long run, so it’s a strategy that pays off.

WHAT A NUTRITIONIST WANTS YOU TO KNOW

  • Bad nutrition advice dietitians want you to forget
  • The best way to lose weight boils down to these three things
  • What you need to know about going vegan
  • A better way to think about ‘clean eating’
  • The healthier pick: a hot dog or a hamburger?

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Is processed food really that bad?

  • Not inherently bad

    It depends on how it was processed (even bagged salads and carrots are processed), And it’s important to bear in mind that the processing that is used often improves shelf stability and keeps food from spoiling which makes it safer for consumption, Something that must be balanced with the long term health effects of preservatives. Getting food poisoning from spoiled chicken is probably worse for you than eating a McChicken.

  • Fg gft y

    We go towards certain foods because we know that it gives us energy and nutrients
    some processed foods are good to eat like bagged salad
    Some energy bars are just candy bars.
    Healthy processed foods are more expensive
    granola bars are stuffed with added sugars which digest quickly and don’t satisfy hunger for long

  • Not all process food is bad for people

    The International Food Information Council has stated that processed foods are divided into five groups: minimally processed(bagged salad); foods processed for preservation and freshness(milk, 100% fresh juice, frozen fruits); combined foods(tomato sauce); ready-to-eat foods(cereal, cheese, candy) and foods packaged to stay fresh(prepared deli food, frozen meals). Not all processed food is bad for people. For example, milk is processed food, but low- and non-fat milk are good for most people who can digest the lactose; breakfast cereals are processed foods that can be good for you when they’re made with 100-percent whole grain and fortified with additional nutrients; frozen food are also processed food, such as vegetables and fruits that don’t contain any sauce, sugar or syrup. Freezing preserves most vitamins and minerals. Finally, processed food can also combined with fresh food to create a variety of nutritious meals.

  • No,processed food is not really that bad.

    When you are talking about processed food,you have to take the good with the bad.Even though it can be processed in a way that is definitely unhealthy,there are many good qualities as well.Processed foods can be preserved for longer periods of time and travels better than fresh food.Manufacturers can also choose to only include natural ingredients in their processing.

Are potato chips processed food?

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