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Are Processed Foods Harmful? Debunking Myths and Misconceptions

 Are Processed Foods Harmful? Debunking Myths and Misconceptions


“I really try not to eat processed foods.” You hear it come out of your mouth and just as it does, you realize you have only the slightest idea of what that actually means. At least, that’s how it went for me once upon a time. Even if you haven’t voiced the sentiment out loud, surely you’ve heard the term and in an effort to get healthier, tried to cut down on those pesky, possibly life-threatening (?) processed foods. But what exactly does this loose designation mean and are processed foods really as bad as they’ve been billed to be? Should you avoid processed foods altogether, and if so, how? Answering the first of those questions might help to figure out the rest.

What are processed foods?

The term processed food really applies to any food that has been altered in any way prior to sale or consumption. The International Food Information Council qualifies (PDF) the processing of food as “any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat — as simple as freezing or drying food to preserve nutrients and freshness or as complex as formulating a frozen meal with the right balance of nutrients and ingredients.”  

There are a thousand and one ways to modify foods, from the drastic to the most basic including ancient techniques — like drying and fermenting — to more modern, chemical and biological modifications with new ones being developed all the time. Foods are also modified for many different reasons, from improving taste and visual appearance to extending shelf life but also some unexpected reasons you might not associate with processing — ones which can actually be quite good for you.

Note: For the purposes of this article, we’ll not discuss genetically modified foods or “GMOs,” which have been altered before growth at a molecular level and pose a separate series of questions and concerns.

fruits-and-veggies fruits-and-veggies

Shutterstock

The few completely unprocessed foods — the ones you’ve been telling yourself to eat as much of as humanly possible — are a fairly small list of fruits and vegetables, meats, nuts, seeds, and a few other foods that are consumed essentially as they were when they left the earth, tree, vine, pod, shell, sea or farm. So a better question to ask yourself as you stroll the aisles of the supermarket is not “is it processed?” but rather “how processed is it?” and also “how is it processed?” Speaking very generally, the less processed the better, but there are some important caveats.

Read more: 7 Ways to Eat a Healthy Diet Without Spending a Lot

How a food is processed matters more than if it is or not

Woman takes fresh fruits and vegetables out from bag Woman takes fresh fruits and vegetables out from bag

Raw fruits and vegetables, especially organic versions, are often the least processed foods in the grocery store.

Maria Korneeva/Moment/Getty Images

Some minimally processed foods like bagged vegetables, fresh fruits, plain rice and grains, salad greens, seeds, nuts and roasted coffee beans are technically processed, but in innocuous ways such as simply cooking, grinding or preparing them for in-store and at-home convenience. These foods are processed for your benefit: cleaned, cooked or cut for safety and ease.

Slightly more heavily processed foods, like boxed crackers or frozen fruits, vegetables and legumes, often have processing besides cooking such as an added preservative such as salt or sugar, but the effect is often minimal as most basic packaging and freezing processes are effective and relatively noninvasive. 

Canned foods are not as simple to navigate, as they generally include more ingredients and more complex methods of processing or preserving. Peaches, for example, are often canned in a corn syrup-based juice, while many other canned vegetables and soups are full of nitrates and preservatives. There is also the presence of BPA, an industrial chemical found in the metal of some food cans that have been linked to serious health problems. But at the end of the day, nearly any canned, preserved and frozen food will experience some loss of nutrients, so fresh is always better if it’s possible.

Medium processed foods 

bead alone loaves of bread on shelf bead alone loaves of bread on shelf

Quality bread isn’t typically processed in a way that will harm you, but watch out for bread that’s been bleached to remove color or filled with sweeteners for taste. 

Bread Alone

More processed foods include those modified for taste and appearance with sweeteners, flavoring agents preservatives. These include many bottled certain shelf-stable sauces, salad dressings, soups, batters and gravy mixes. This more complex category is one that requires you to read and research specific ingredients so you know what you’re putting into your body. A general rule of thumb is the fewer ingredients, the better. And remember, they’re listed in descending order from the most prevalent ingredient (by sheer volume) to the least. The hard-to-pronounce ingredients are often chemical fillers, sweeteners, colorants, nitrates, antibiotics and other preservatives. Most nutritionists would urge you to avoid it where possible.

Bread and baked goods are one category of food that runs the gamut from extremely highly processed to not much at all and consumption should be carefully considered. Bleached white bread and rolls, like Wonder brand, are highly processed and preserved, obliterating most nutritional value. More natural brands, such as Arnold and Bread Alone, still may contain some preservatives, but not nearly as many as their cheaper, long-lasting friends in the bakery aisle. Again, read the ingredients; the fewer total and the more you recognize, the better.

Ultraprocessed foods: Avoid at all cost

A tv dinner A tv dinner

While some modern frozen food and meal delivery services are made fresh and frozen without preservatives, many are still ultraprocessed and should be axed from your diet.

Getty Images

The worst (and most) processed foods often come via a Trojan horse of convenience and include most ready-to-eat, frozen or prepackaged meals, mixes, soups and sweets. The more complicated the food, the more tampering likely had to be done for it to remain edible and tasty. This means most frozen pizzas and microwavable TV dinners, as well as complex packaged desserts with filling and frosting, like Twinkies and Pop-Tarts. Ultraprocessed foods contain extremely low levels of nutrition. A 2022 study on Brazilian adults showed that these foods contribute to premature death at an astounding rate.

Most store-bought bacon, hot dogs and prepackaged deli meats are also highly processed and packed with nitrates to stop the growth of bacteria, so much so that they are classified as carcinogens by some standards. This classification does not apply across the board and some newer food brands such as organic Amy’s Kitchen have found ways to make and distribute prepared and frozen foods without the heavy use of chemical preservatives. The proof is often in the packaging, so read, read and then read some more.

Another thing to look out for are “low-fat” “sugar-free” and other “diet” foods which are often processed at a higher rate than others, and many times in an unhealthy way. Consider that if a food is billed as “low-fat,” that means fat (taste) was removed from the original product and it has likely been either chemically altered or contains a bevy of flavor additives to make up for the loss of flavor. More often than not, this means sugar, which is arguably worse for you than the original fat that was removed. On the flip side, many low-sugar or low-carb foods are fortified with alternative chemical sweeteners, which range from the highly chemical (aspartame and saccharine) to the more naturally derived (stevia and monk fruit). 

Some foods are processed for good

tropican essentials juice with calcium tropican essentials juice with calcium

Orange juice is often fortified with extra fiber, calcium and other nutrients. 

Tropicana

While the term “processed food” certainly carries a negative connotation, many foods are processed to improve or fortify their health benefits and overall nutritional value. Certain bread products and granolas are fortified with fiber or riboflavin, for instance. Milk, juices, drinks and yogurts often get a boost of calcium or vitamins that have varying degrees of positive impact on health.

Pasteurization is another common form of processing, particularly for juice, milk and milk byproducts such as cheese and yogurt. It uses heat to eliminate potentially harmful pathogens and extend shelf life. Pasteurization does not rely on heavy additives like other preservation methods and serves as another example of food processing that shouldn’t concern the average person.

In general, the term “processed foods” should not be something to scare or stop you from buying or eating something, but if you suspect or discover something has been heavily processed, for any reason, it would be wise to consider both the means for and the process by which it was altered before buying. When it comes to food, as with almost anything else, knowledge is power. 

What the health food?



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