Processed Food, What Is “Processed”?

Processed Food.

When we hear the word, we normally think of it negatively. Usually, you’ll hear things like 

-“Processed foods cause cancer.” 

-“They’re why we have high blood pressure.”

-“They’re poison.” 

-“They killed my goldfish, George.”

I haven’t personally heard that last one but I fairly certain it’s been said…

So, what exactly is a processed food? 

  • Is it one, specific thing or is it a vague term used to cover a wide variety?
  • Are all processed foods bad for you?
  • Are there any healthy processed foods?
  • Will it really kill my goldfish? 

All these questions will be answered below:

What is a Processed food?

Well here’s what it basically is: “Processed foods” include food that has been canned, frozen, cooked, packaged or changed in nutritional composition by fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways. So, basically any time you cook, bake or prepare food, you’re processing food. 

There’s different forms of processing food, though. Here are some examples:

  • -Minimally processed foods – like nuts and bagged vegetables.
  • -Canned goods – foods like tomatoes, frozen fruit, and canned tuna are processed at their peak freshness to lock in nutrients.
  • -Added ingredient foods – Sauces and flavorers that contain added ingredients (oils, spices, preservatives, colors).
  • -Pre-made meals – Usually are the most heavily processed. They need to be able to last so they tend to have many preservatives.  

Quick facts about processed foods:

  • Some are helpful. Some processed foods are packed more densely with nutrients you wouldn’t normally get from that food. Ex. Milk and Juice fortified with calcium and vitamin D / Breakfast cereals are basically multivitamins with the amount of nutrients they’re fortified with.
  • Usually, they have tons of added sugar and sodium (they add flavor)

Can you avoid processed food?

The fact is, if you’re not growing your own food, you’re going to be consuming processed food. Some foods like the ones above are minimally processed. Something you can try to avoid are ultra-processed foods. 

Examples of ultra-processed foods include:

  • Soft drinks
  • Packaged bread and buns
  • Chips
  • Candy
  • Store-bought ice cream
  • Boxed cake mix
  • Instant noodles
  • Infant formula
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Energy bars
  • Flavored yogurt
  • Chicken nuggets
  • Fast food burgers
  • Hot dogs

Think you’re avoiding these kinds of foods? 

A study from NCBI found this:

“Almost 60% of calories consumed in the period 2007–2012 came from ultra-processed foods. Consumption of ultra-processed foods decreased with age and income level, was higher for non-Hispanic whites or non-Hispanic blacks than for other race/ethnicity groups and lower for people with college than for lower levels of education, all differences being statistically significant. Overall contribution of ultra-processed foods increased significantly between NHANES cycles (nearly 1% point per cycle), the same being observed among males, adolescents and high school education-level individuals.”

So, it’s in our diet. It’s hard to avoid. It should go without saying that processed foods are always higher in calories than their non-processed or lower-processed counterparts, which should lead you to avoid them.

What’s the harm in eating ultra-processed foods?

On the micro level, there’s still much to be discovered. Not much is known about the effect of preservatives on your gut biome. Nothing that can be definitely proven in humans yet. There have been studies done on mouse gut biomes when eating a diet of emulsifiers (things added to foods like ice cream to give texture). One study (the first of its kind to show these additives have a direct effect on gut health) found a link between food preservatives and obesity and gut disease. Mice were divided in two groups. Both had the same diet, but one group was given emulsifiers in their water. The group fed the emulsifiers were found to have altered gut biome bacteria. This led them to be more prone to obesity and gut disease. The reason behind this is that the emulsifiers broke down the heavy mucus that lines the mammalian gut and prevents bacteria from coming in contact with gut cells. When they come in contact, bacteria can cause inflammation in the gut, and that leads to changes in metabolism. 

How to avoid ultra-processed foods?

  • Read the label – If the ingredient list is longer than five items, that’s usually a sign of being heavily processed.
  • Increase consumption of Whole Foods (actual food, not the grocery store chain)- Don’t complicate it for yourself. Buy Whole Foods like chicken, nuts, and vegetables. Cook your food at home. Put in the effort. 
  • If you don’t understand the name of an ingredient that’s a good indicator that it’s probably not natural.

There’s still much to be learned on the micro effects of processed foods on our bodies. We have small examples of animal studies which can be a good indicator, but are not definitive proof. In the end, everything in moderation will prevail. Avoid processed food when you can. Eat whole food. Prepare it yourself. Make time for your health. It’s not sexy, it won’t always taste like a restaurant, but you can sleep at night knowing exactly what you put in your body.

-Stay Realistically Fit

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