Why are Processed Foods So Hard to Give Up?

image showing unhealthy processed foods on a plate with fries, chicken nuggets and ketchup

We know they are not good for us. Processed foods are a multi-billion dollar industry and one that’s growing at a rapid pace. No wonder! Not everyone has the time to prepare healthy, nutritious meals at home. Processed food manufacturers cater to the consumers need for convenience. Processed food manufacturers also tempt us with brightly colored packages and clever marketing. It’s not easy to work a full day and come home and get dinner on the table. That’s why packaged foods are so appealing. You simply pull something out of the freezer and fire it up in the microwave. Most people realize that many processed foods are not a healthful choice, yet have a hard time giving them up. Why are these foods so appealing and sometimes hard to let go of?

The Lure of Packaged Foods

Companies use clever marketing and packaging to promote processed foods and foods high in sugar. With buzzwords like “all natural” or ‘superfood” on the front of the package, we’re fooled into thinking these convenient foods are healthy. Of course, marketing terms like these aren’t regulated and say nothing about the nutritional composition of a food or how much sugar it has. Plus, food companies employ scientists that research and come up with tantalizing flavor combinations that are appealing to the tongue. Then, they work diligently to craft the perfect combination of salt, sugar, fillers, and flavor enhancers, like MSG to keep you coming back for more. Are you starting to see why we have a hard time giving them up?

This strategy seems to work. In fact, 60% of the food Americans consume is ultra-processed. It’s important to distinguish ultra-processed foods from minimally processed foods, like frozen vegetables and whole foods that are basically intact but might contain preservatives to keep them fresh. One can argue that frozen vegetables and frozen fruits, although processed minimally, still have considerable health benefits.

In fact, some studies show that frozen vegetables and fruits retain their nutrients better than fresh produce since they don’t travel long distances or sit on store shelves while gradually losing vitamins. Freezing locks in nutrients and frozen vegetables are usually processed at their peak of freshness. So, not all processed foods are bad. It’s the ultra-processed stuff that earns processed foods a bad reputation.

Types of Food Processing

The least concerning type of food processing is mechanical processing. Mechanical processing simply means a food is pulled from the ground and chopped into pieces before being frozen or otherwise prepped. Mechanically processed food doesn’t undergo the addition of chemicals or additives. That’s where chemical processing comes in. When you look at the ingredient list that’s 20 ingredients long, you’re seeing the results of chemical processing.

Not all of the chemical ingredients added to processed foods are harmful, some, like preservatives, may be necessary, but others are there to add flavor or texture but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily harmless. For example, emulsifiers are associated with changes to the gut microbiome in animal studies. We also know that preservatives added to processed meat, like sodium nitrite, are potentially carcinogenic. Studies link a diet high in processed meat with an increased risk of cancer.

More Reasons Ultra-Processed Foods Are Unhealthy but Hard to Give Up

Ultra-processing also removes much of the fiber from the food. The lack of fiber makes food easier to chew, allowing us to consume them faster. That’s one reason that these foods are linked to weight gain. Plus, the lack of fiber is a problematic in and of itself. Studies show that most Americans only get half of the recommended daily intake of fiber. Why is this a problem? It’s fiber that increases satiety and reduces the blood sugar response to a meal. In addition, it requires less energy to process refined foods once they enter the stomach, unlike a whole food that’s still intact.

There’s even evidence that processed and sugar-laden foods are addictive. The hyperpalatable nature of these foods, thanks to their carefully engineered flavorings, makes them hard to resist.

Typically, the sugar in processed foods is not table sugar but high fructose corn syrup, a controversial sweetener that’s the darling of processed food manufacturers. Like sugar, high fructose corn syrup contains a high proportion of fructose. Some studies suggest that it’s processed differently and goes directly to the liver where it can be stored as fat. Some Studies link high fructose corn syrup with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

Regardless of its structure, sugars seem to have some addictive properties based on animal studies. How so? Foods that are sweet elicit a dopamine response. Since dopamine is a reward brain chemical, that dopamine surge leads to cravings for more. For that reason, it’s not hard to say why processed foods rich in sugar are hard to give up. These foods are engineered to be rewarding and to be less satiating. So, we eat more of them and have a hard time removing them from our diet.

It’s not just the sugar and high fructose corn syrup in processed foods that are a problem. These foods contain large amounts of refined carbohydrates that break down quickly and cause a rapid rise in blood sugar and insulin. That’s why they’re not the best option for people with diabetes or with metabolic syndrome. But, that’s not the only reason. The rapid rise in blood sugar is followed by a quick fall and that brings on hunger. So, processed foods are inherently unsatisfied.

Where Are the Nutrients?

We already know that the processing of foods removes fiber, but it also removes nutrients. The loss of nutrients is substantial enough that manufacturers add synthetic nutrients back in. But, what you can’t add to processed foods are the many phytonutrients in plant-based foods. That frozen pizza you pop in the oven is probably fairly devoid of these non-essential nutrients that have probable health benefits.

The Bottom Line

Processed foods aren’t the stuff that healthy bodies are made of, so it’s best to leave them out of your diet. But, keep in mind, not all packaged foods are inherently unhealthy. Frozen vegetables with no added sauces are a quick way to get vegetables on the table when you’re in a rush. So, don’t discard all foods in a package – but make sure you’re being selective!



NHS Choices. “Eating Processed Foods”
The New Scientist. “Surge in obesity and diabetes could be linked to food additives”
Live Science. “Why Processed Foods May Promote Gut Inflammation”


Related Articles by Cathe:

Eating for Longevity: What are the Best Eating Practices for Living Longer?

What Are Processed Foods and Are They All Bad?

Another Look at Fructose: Does It Cause You to Overeat?

Is High-Fructose Corn Syrup Worse Than Sugar?


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