Processed foods. We hear this term again and again, but what does it really mean? More importantly, are the foods that boast delicious flavor and convenience really *that* bad for your health?
Let’s start by picturing your recent trip to the grocery store. On the outside aisles you can find products such as vegetables, fruits, meat, eggs, etc. These foods usually look the same as if you were to grow or produce them yourself.
Now, let’s picture the inner aisles. Towers of cereals, canned goods, breads, cake mixes, cookies, drinks and more, are colorfully packaged inside boxes decorated with little elves, bears and other characters. These convenient snacks are ready-to-eat and are available in any flavor you can imagine. Processed foods are not things that you can grow in your backyard.
This, by no means, indicates that the vegetables, fruits, meats, and other foods that we consider “healthy” aren’t processed. By definition, processed refers to any foods that have been changed in any way from their natural state.
Milk, for example, must be pasteurized in order to remove harmful bacteria. Likewise, pickles are fermented, peanut butter is ground from peanuts, and so on. Anything that is frozen, canned, baked, dried or pasteurized is considered processed.
What are Ultra-Processed Foods?
Citric acid, sodium nitrite, high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, FD&C Green No. 3, monosodium glutamate, soy lecithin. Sound like another language? These are just a few of the additives that can be found in many common foods. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a list of more than 3,000 additives that are approved for use in food.
Ultra-processed foods are filled with manufactured ingredients that have been created in a lab and cannot be found in nature. When listed on an ingredients label, they are difficult to read and are foreign to most consumers.
These additives, which include artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, and preservatives, alter the food to mimic the taste and texture of real, high-quality ingredients. Therefore, food companies can use cheaper ingredients and can create a product that has a longer shelf life, looks and tastes better (debatable), and is more convenient.
For example, inside your typical can of diet soda, you will find carbonated water, caramel color, aspartame, phosphoric acid, potassium benzoate, natural flavors, citric acid, and caffeine. These ingredients, which include GMOs, cannot be found in your kitchen cupboard or in your grandmother’s recipes.
If these foods taste great, look great, and are easy to prepare, what harm can they cause? So many foods that are part of our daily diet undergo several processes until they are ready for consumption. Frozen dinners, sodas, snack cakes, chicken nuggets, instant soups and other ultra-processed foods make up 60 percent of our total calories consumed! When eaten on a regular basis, these foods that contain manufactured ingredients, extra salt, sugar, fat and other additives, can become dangerous to our health.
Artificial ingredients are chemicals. They make Cheetos orange and crunchy, chocolate pudding smooth and brown, Skittles chewy and the color of the rainbow, and keep all of them fresh on the shelf for months, or sometimes even years.
These chemicals can be found in almost every processed food that we eat. Since these ingredients are fairly new additions to our diets, significant research on their effects has not been thoroughly conducted. What researchers have found is that some additives have been linked to health conditions such as obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hyperactivity in children, and more. Some have even been linked to cancer!
In 1976, the United States FDA banned the use of Red Dye No. 2 after claims that the artificial ingredient was linked to cancer. At that time, the additive, also called amaranth, was found in $10 billion of foods, drugs, and cosmetics including chocolate pudding, cake mixes, pet food, hot dogs, ice cream and more. It’s a good idea to try and stay away from ultra-processed foods and, instead, focus your eating habits on natural, clean alternative.
Tips for Staying Away from Processed Foods
- Read the labels on the back of the foods that you buy. If you can’t pronounce the ingredients, or they are not something that you can find in your kitchen pantry, put it back on the shelf and choose a different option.
- Stay away from food in vending machines and gas stations. These cheap, highly processed foods contain cheap ingredients.
- Know exactly what you are eating by purchasing fresh ingredients, such as bread from your local bakery or produce from a farmers’ market, and cook from scratch as much as possible.
- While at the grocery store, stay on the outside aisles. Only put things in your cart that are in the same “natural” form as if you were to grow them yourself.