Processed foods have gotten a bad rap – and for good reason. They’re blamed for the rise in obesity, for health problems like heart disease and type 2-diabetes and for being a source of low nutrition calories. But what is a processed food exactly and what is it that makes these foods unhealthy?
What Are Processed Foods?
Processed food is one that’s been altered in some way from its natural state. Using this definition, even something as simple as cooking food makes it processed since it’s no longer in its unaltered state. Even though raw foodists may argue, cooking food isn’t always bad. In some cases, it destroys some of the nutrients, but in other cases, it enhances the ability for your body to use them. An example? The lycopenes in tomatoes are better absorbed when they’re heated or processed.
Other ways foods can be processed is by pasteurizing them to destroy bacteria or even by chopping them into pieces or freezing them. So, using this definition, not all processed foods are bad. Even bagged salad mixtures you find at the supermarket are processed because they’ve been washed and packaged.
Where processed foods get a bad reputation is when manufacturers “enhance” them by adding sugar, or high fructose corn syrup, salt and saturated fat, or even worse, trans-fat – and that’s only the beginning. Many manufacturers add flavor enhancers like MSG, food coloring, fillers, artificial flavorings, artificial sweeteners, and preservatives – and that’s not a good thing. Certain artificial colorings and preservatives have been linked with health problems like ADHD in kids, asthma symptoms and cancer and some people are sensitive to MSG, a common flavor enhancer in packaged products. Sodium nitrite, a preservative in processed meat, has been linked with stomach cancer.
How Bad Are Processed Foods?
Not every processed or packaged food you find in the grocery store is bad. For example, frozen vegetables have been processed by chopping, cleaning and freezing them to make them easy to store and quick to prepare. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The key is to read the label on packaged vegetables and make sure there’s no added sugar, salt or preservatives. Many frozen vegetables are preservative-free since they’re stored at a low temperature. Some packaged, frozen vegetables are nothing more than vegetables in a frozen state.
At the other extreme, are packaged foods with a long ingredient list made up of chemicals you can’t pronounce. If you’ve ever read the ingredient list for McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets, you know that chicken means more than just chicken. Chicken McNuggets have about 38 different ingredients. That’s definitely the kind of processed food you want to avoid.
It’s Hard to Completely Avoid All Processed Foods
Eating a diet that’s totally free of processed foods is challenging, but there are ways to reduce the number of processed foods you eat. Here are some tips:
Buy more organic, fresh produce. If you don’t have time to clean and prep them, buy organic frozen vegetables that contain no preservatives or additives. Frozen vegetables have similar nutritional value to fresh ones. This is one case where “processed” isn’t necessarily bad.
Shop your local farmer’s market. Locally grown fruits and vegetables are usually fresher since they haven’ had to travel as far, and they’re usually tastier. Buying locally benefits your community too.
If you buy packaged foods, read the ingredients list and avoid ones with long ingredient lists and ingredients that are hard to pronounce. Avoid ones with hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, MSG, food coloring and added salt whenever possible.
Avoid canned foods. Not only do many canned foods contain lots of added salt, but they’re also packaged in cans that have a plastic liner made with BPA (bisphenol-A), an ingredient used to make plastic that can leach into the contents in the can and into your body when you eat the contents.
Avoid processed meats. They contain sodium nitrite as a preservative and have been linked with a greater risk for colon cancer.
Avoid fast food. Even so-called “healthier” fast food contains added salt, preservatives, and food coloring.
Be aware of what’s in the food you eat. Once you start reading labels, you’ll be surprised at just how many “extra ingredients” are added to packaged foods.
The Bottom Line?
Not all processed foods are bad, but packaged foods with long ingredient lists and ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, food coloring, and long chemical names are ones you want to avoid. Stick with whole foods as much as possible, and when you buy something in a package, read the label carefully beforehand.
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