How Processed Foods Can Positively Fit Into Your DietJul 24, 2022
Processing foods have been used for multiple centuries with methods like salting, fermenting and smoking to preserve food through long winter months or to prevent spoilage. In the 1960s, most food was prepared and cooked in the home. But then, a mixed blessing transformation took place. Technological advances in food preservation and packaging enabled manufacturers to mass-prepare and distribute food for ready consumption. Using new preservatives, artificial flavors, and techniques such as deep freezing and vacuum packaging, food corporations could mass produce ready-made, durable, palatable edibles that offer an enormous commercial advantage over fresh and perishable foods. Enrichment and fortification came with the knowledge of essential nutrients and to address malnutrition. The global food supply has caught on to the benefits of processed foods.
We Need A Clarification
On What Processed Foods Are
Firstly, almost all foods undergo some form of processing before they are ready to eat—from cutting and cooking to more complex processes like homogenizing, pasteurizing, fermenting, and refining. Processing makes raw foods more palatable, minimizes spoilage, modifies nutritional content and creates convenience. Some processing, like freezing, pasteurization, vacuum-packing, and (non-alcoholic) fermentation have beneficial effects on health: preserving nutrients, increasing digestibility and availability of some nutrients, or preventing food-borne illness.
But in other cases, processing has some deleterious health effects: partial hydrogenation of fat, for example, creates trans fats that have been linked to increased risk for cardiovascular disease; refining of grains reduces nutrient content and creates rapidly digested concentrated starch which increases risk for weight gain, diabetes, and other negative health effects; and addition of excess salt and sugar is tied to a whole host of illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. Being able to understand these health impacts and what makes a food “processed” is important to making decisions around food.
Are Processed Foods Bad For My Health?
There has been an increased availability of ultra-processed foods globally that have also been associated with a rise in obesity and related chronic health problems like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Food processing often removes health-promoting nutrients such as fiber, phytochemicals, beneficial fatty acids, and other bioactive components. Additionally, processed and ultra-processed foods tend to be high in added sugars, refined starches, and sodium, which have been shown to increase risk for chronic diseases. These foods often also contain a mix of emulsifiers, thickeners, stabilizers, and artificial sweeteners, each of which have uncertain and controversial health effects. Processed meats (like bacon, ham, sausage, and deli meats) contain nitrites and are linked to higher risk of colorectal cancer (so-called “nitrite-free” meats have nitrites added in the form of celery juice or other “natural” sources.) The refined grains and starches in processed foods are quickly broken down into glucose which is absorbed into the bloodstream more readily and in greater quantities than natural sugars in unprocessed foods, increasing risk for weight gain, diabetes and other negative health effects. While not all unprocessed foods benefit health (think butter and unprocessed red meats), even these natural foods often have less of a negative impact on health than ultra-processed foods.
It is worth acknowledging that some level of processing is important for food safety and arguably essential for convenience in our modern society. The best approach is to focus on consuming foods that are in their natural form (such as fruits, nuts, and veggies) and to buy and prepare food yourself (such as cooked vegetables and fruit, legumes, minimally processed whole grains, and possibly fish). Other packaged foods that contain ingredients in or near their whole form (such as whole grain breads, unsweetened yogurt, par-boiled/quick-cook whole grains, and frozen vegetables) are both healthy and quick-to-prepare.
Limiting highly-processed foods and beverages—with their refined grains, high sodium, added sugars, and lack of unprocessed ingredients—is one of the most important things you can do for your health.
What Kind Of Highly-Processed Foods Should I Be Limiting?
Research is ever evolving and we are going to break down for you the current science on many ingredients found in highly processed foods. Just a quick search on the internet and you will find a lot of misinformation or sensationalized news on some of these ingredients. In order for you to feel empowered to ease off highly processed foods, we need to be able to parse out what is truth and base our “why” to ease off of these foods on facts and not fear.
Here are a few foods that you should consider and decide, based on your current circumstances, if it would be worth limiting or not:
Added Sugars– Not Just High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
HFCS is a sweetener made from corn starch. The starch is broken down into glucose by enzymes. This glucose/corn syrup is further processed and some of it is converted into fructose by using enzymes. There are typically two variations of this mix of glucose and fructose (HFCS) to be used in certain products. As a sweetener, HFCS is preferred by manufacturers because it is easier to handle, keeps foods moist and cheaper than regular sugar. It is typically used in processed foods, cereals and soft drinks. Table sugar and HFCS are chemically very similar, with HFCS variations fluctuating slightly higher or lower concentrations of fructose than table sugar.
As of current research, the slight differences between HFCS and table sugar are not significant as far as health outcomes associated with added sugar types. By any other name, sugar is still sugar and HFCS is not any worse than natural forms of sugar when we are focusing purely on its chemical makeup.
One of the biggest sources of added sugars are soft drinks, energy and sports drinks. Among all US adults, these drinks rank as the fourth-highest source of calories, averaging 112 calories daily and 30 percent of total consumption. Overconsumption of these drinks has been linked to a host of problems: gout, hypertension, increase of diabetes risk, Alzheimer’s disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). The buildup of fat in the liver unrelated to alcohol consumption goes undetected and as many as 25 percent of US adults have the disease. Learning to opt for different drinks will offer a variety to your diet and can help mitigate these overwhelming risks with excessive consumption of empty calories from sugar-sweetened drinks.
As a gentle reminder upon reviewing the importance of recognizing the significance of cutting back on added sugars, the end goal is to re-evaluate our entire diet and not just individual nutrients and components of foods.
Sugar often gets a bad rap for its association to chronic diseases and its proliferated use in processed foods, however, it is something that makes food palatable and enjoyable. Eating is meant to be a delight and something we should take pleasure in. Within the framework of a predominantly plant-based diet, we need to give acknowledgement to sugar and how to intentionally consume it in our diet.
Prioritize Whole Grains Over Refined Flours When Possible
Refined grains have undergone a process that removes the germ and bran from the grain. Whole grains contain three parts: The bran (outer layer), endosperm (middle layer), and germ (inner layer). The bran and germ are the most nutritious parts of the grain; they contain concentrated amounts of fiber, fats, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. During the refining process, the bran and germ are removed from the whole grain and thus removes: fiber, 20 percent of the protein, and other nutrients. The endosperm (middle layer) is the part of the grain that is left after the refining process. It is primarily composed of starchy carbohydrates and is low in nutrients.
Refined grains are missing fiber and key nutrients that their whole-grain counterparts retain. To make up for this, companies will often “enrich” the flour by adding back in essential vitamins and nutrients. Even though vitamins are added back in to fortify the foods, they aren’t as optimally utilized in the same manner when they are re-inserted back in foods as isolated compounds. The refined grains allow your body to break it down more quickly, which typically raises blood sugar more quickly as well. This excess blood sugar has to be metabolized by the liver, and if there's an excess of sugar, your body will store some of it as fat. Refined carbohydrates are linked to suboptimal weight maintenance and metabolic diseases, which isn’t surprising since they are typically found paired with highly processed foods like crackers, cookies, cakes, etc.
Grains have been part of the diverse diets that have evolved with the human population. Many prehistoric diets included seasonal nuts, seeds and species related to corn, wheat, rice and millet. The health benefits of consuming whole grains (mostly due to its fiber content) have shown it to be associated with lower risks of cardiovascular disease, cancer, hypertension and other chronic diseases in comparison to low whole grain consumption. There will be some instances where medical conditions such as celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, fructan intolerance, food allergies or rare genetic conditions will require restrictive grain consumption. However, gluten for those without these conditions have not been shown to have inflammatory effects.
Buying products with “whole” as the first ingredient still does not guarantee that it is made entirely of whole grains, unless it says 100 percent whole grain. Some great examples of whole grains include: steel-cut oats, barley, millet, bulgur, buckwheat, and wheat berries.
A Word On Glyphosate
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, a weed killer that has been generously used in agricultural farming and under intense scrutiny for the residues it leaves on crops. Oats, wheat, barley and legumes typically have the highest levels because they are sprayed with glyphosate before harvest as a quick drying agent. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a ‘probable human carcinogen’ after an association was found with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Subsequently, this classification was then reversed by the joint FAO/WHO in 2016 and deemed glyphosate “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans exposed via the diet.” This is probably very confusing to the average consumer. It’s important to note that the media capitalizes on this information to make sensational headlines. You’ll soon realize that in nutrition, it is rarely a simple answer. Different organizations, like the IARC and WHO have approached glyphosate differently (one is seeing it as a hazard while another sees it as a risk). The IARC’s index tells us how strong the evidence is that something causes harm, such as cancer, but doesn’t differentiate on how much exposure is required to make the hazard a risk. Glyphosate is fiercely debated for its potential effects on its impact on cancer, the gut bacteria, animals, and its impact on farming and soil health. You will find research on both sides of the matter when it comes to glyphosate (see references from Kiman and Ruishalme for more information). However, the current research that is supported by United Nations Program, International Labor Organization and World Health Organization indicate that the adverse effects of glyphosate on humans and other mammals is low enough to not pose a risk.
At the end of the day, it is noteworthy to consider your level of risk tolerance and being able to assess if the benchmarks established for minimal risk are tolerable for you.
Highly-Processed Foods Don’t Offer Us The Variety Our Bodies Need
Just three ingredients are found in most processed foods: wheat, corn, and soy. In fact, a person on the standard American diet will usually have at least one of these in every single meal, snack, or beverage. Wheat, corn, and soy come in many forms: corn syrup, soy protein isolate, soybean oil, wheat flour. What is even wilder is that not only are most highly-processed foods made with those three foods, but so is most of our meat and dairy. Almost all commercial food animals are fed primarily on corn and soy because they are cheap sources of calories (thanks to government subsidies). A strong microbiome relies on a diversity of plants. It is important to limit the highly-processed foods (and the meat and dairy) to diversify your gut bacteria and promote health.
Focus More On What You Can Add To Your Diet
There is a widespread conception that processed food is considered unhealthy. As you have learned, the term “processed food” is quite broad and covers many food items including produce and grains that are cooked, canned, frozen, chopped, etc. Highly or ultra-processed foods are linked to poor health outcomes. Foods like cured meats and highly refined grain products are stripped of their nutrients or altered with added sugars and salts. Fiber is one of the most common nutrients removed from processed food and it’s no wonder that 95 percent of Americans are not eating enough fiber.
From better digestion to migraine relief, to preventing cancer, you can reap some serious health benefits if you take strides to reduce highly-processed foods from your diet. In the long-term, cutting down on these foods could reduce: cholesterol levels, blood pressure, risk of cancer, inflammation, and your risk of fatty liver and heart diseases. But that’s not all, in the short run you will achieve: optimal weight maintenance, age slower, get fewer headaches, have more energy, have better hair, skin and brain function, reduce joint pain, regulate hormones, improve reproductive health and encourage a stronger immune system.
Bernstein, Alison. (2018). Risk In Perspective: Hazard and Risk are Different. Scimoms. https://scimoms.com/hazard-risk/
Kiman, Josh. (2021). How Worried Should We Be About Glyphosate? The Regeneration Weekly. https://weekly.regeneration.works/p/-how-worried-should-we-be-about-glyphosate?s=r
Meftaul, I. M., Venkateswarlu, K., Dharmarajan, R., Annamalai, P., Asaduzzaman, M., Parven, A., & Megharaj, M. (2020). Controversies over human health and ecological impacts of glyphosate: Is it to be banned in modern agriculture?. Environmental pollution (Barking, Essex : 1987), 263(Pt A), 114372. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2020.114372
Raatz, S. K., Johnson, L. K., & Picklo, M. J. (2015). Consumption of Honey, Sucrose, and High-Fructose Corn Syrup Produces Similar Metabolic Effects in Glucose-Tolerant and -Intolerant Individuals. The Journal of nutrition, 145(10), 2265–2272. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.115.218016
Rippe, J. M., & Angelopoulos, T. J. (2016). Relationship between Added Sugars Consumption and Chronic Disease Risk Factors: Current Understanding. Nutrients, 8(11), 697. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu8110697
Sánchez-Villegas, A., Verberne, L., De Irala, J., Ruíz-Canela, M., Toledo, E., Serra-Majem, L., & Martínez-González, M. A. (2011). Dietary fat intake and the risk of depression: the SUN Project. PloS one, 6(1), e16268. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0016268
Ruishalme, Ida. (2016). 17 Questions About Glyphosate. Thoughtscapism. https://thoughtscapism.com/2016/09/07/17-questions-about-glyphosate/
University of California-Davis Department of Nutrition. (2011). Nutrition and Health Info Sheets for Consumers-Added Sugars and High-Fructose Corn Syrup. https://nutrition.ucdavis.edu/outreach/nutr-health-info-sheets/consumer-addedsugars
Tufts University: Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. (Updated 2020). Health and Nutrition Letter. Processed Foods. https://www.nutritionletter.tufts.edu/healthy-eating/processed-foods/
Tufts University: Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. (Updated 2020). Health and Nutrition Letter. Sugary Beverages LInked to Liver Risk. https://www.nutritionletter.tufts.edu/general-nutrition/sugary-beverages-linked-to-liver-risk/
White J. S. (2008). Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: what it is and what it ain't. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 88(6), 1716S–1721S. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2008.25825B
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