Processed food has been gaining notoriety for years. It has been blamed for many ailments, including obesity, gastrointestinal problems, and nutritional deficits.
But does processed food deserve the bad press it receives? And what counts as processed exactly? Pass me another donut while we take a look at this tricky minefield!
The first thing that springs to mind when thinking of processed food is fast food, a quick stop in the drive-thru. If we don’t eat fast food, we’re doing ok, right?
Well no, actually processed food extends far beyond fast food. In fact processed food is all around us, to the point where it’s difficult to avoid!
Why Do Manufacturers Process Food?
Natural foods don’t stay fresh for very long so the food industry has found ‘clever’ ways to extend their shelf-life, such as:
- Applying extreme heat and/or pressure
- Applying solvents and enzymes
- Adding chemicals
- Artificial colors
- Artificial flavors
Longer shelf-life means bigger profits for the big food food companies.
In the process the manufacturers also carefully tweak the levels of salt, fat and sugar until the ‘bliss point’ is reached, where the food is so tasty that it becomes addictive.
The result is a nasty hodge-podge of chemicals, many of which are harmful to the body, which is then wrapped in brightly-coloured packaging and presented to us as ‘food’. These food manufacturers only care about their profit margins, not about our health!
Hugely Popular Processed Food
All of the following count as ‘processed’ or ‘ultra-processed’ (a new description that has recently come into use):
- Fast food, including burgers, fries, shakes, fried chicken, kebabs
- Ready meals
- Breakfast cereal
- Pastries, biscuits, donuts, crackers, breads
- Sweets, candies, jams,
- Condiments such as mayonnaise and ketchup
- Canned food
- Processed meat such as salami, hot dogs, corned beef
7 Reasons To Avoid It
This stuff is convenient and tasty, so what’s the problem? Well, if you’re serious about getting your gut into tip-top health, you’re best off minimising the amount of processed crap that you eat!
Here are some reasons processed food is bad news (this is not an exhaustive list and truly only touches the tip of the iceberg):
1. Processed foods damage our microbiome. There is a delicate balance of beneficial bacteria inside our gut which is vital for digesting food and fighting off pathogens. Processed foods can throw off this balance by boosting the bad bacteria.
Chronic consumption of processed foods is linked to diarrhea, cramping and Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
2. Most processed foods are very low in nutrient value. The methods to increase shelf life tend to decrease the vitamins available to us. Sometimes the vitamins are added back in or the food is “fortified” at the end of the process.
However, these vitamins are synthetic and not as valuable to the human body as those in the natural state of whole, unprocessed foods.
The blend of vitamins and phytochemicals are not understood enough by science to mimic nature in this way, as much as scientists have tried.
3. Eating processed foods is addictive. Whole foods contain a mixture of fats, proteins, nutrients, vitamins, and carbohydrates, which combine to help the body feel satiated and satisfied for longer periods of time.
Processed foods overstimulate the dopamine-receptors, the “feel-good” receptors in the brain, causing the body to crave more and more. Yeah, pass me another donut! (we’ve all been there!)
4. Processed foods have a vanishing calorie density. What does that mean? It means that processed foods have less fiber and complexity than their whole food counterparts.
Processed foods tend to be easier to digest, which drives up blood-sugar levels and leaves the body hungry for more sooner than with whole foods.
It takes more processed food for us to feel full which causes us to eat more frequently. This leads to increased calorie intake, which in turn leads to obesity and other related health problems.
5. Processed foods contain a chemical goo of artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives. Although the food industry claims these are safe, many studies show a link between these ingredients and diseases like cancer. Hyperactivity in children has also been linked to artificial colors in particular.
6. Eating processed foods leads to chronic diseases. Refined flour and sugars over-stimulate the body’s insulin release, which leads to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance has been linked to many chronic diseases including Type 2 Diabetes.
Chronic inflammation, another “side effect” of processed foods has been linked to many chronic diseases as well, including heart disease and dementia.
A 2018 study of 105,000 people published in the British Medical Journal found a link between eating processed food and cancer.¹ Hands up, who’s not surprised?!
7. Processed food is more expensive than whole food. Wait, what? For a long time, people have used the excuse that fresh fruits and vegetables are too expensive to eat regularly and that processed food is much cheaper. However, when broken down meal-by-meal, whole food is cheaper per serving.
These are just a quick few examples of the detrimental effects of processed food. When you also bear in mind that processed food contains more genetically-modified ingredients, more pesticides, and more artificial hormones than whole foods, the idea of processed foods becomes less and less appetizing!
The One Thing That Unites Nutrition Experts?
Debates rage continually in the world of nutrition and health over what should we eat and what we should avoid.
For example, experts on one side swear that we’re not built to eat meat, that it’s making us sick and killing the planet, and that drinking the milk of another animal is perverse.
At the same time experts on the other side swear that we’re not built to eat plants such as grains and legumes because they’re difficult to digest and cause inflammation in our body.
I’m not a trained nutritionist, I’m just a ordinary person like you, trying to make sense of this baffling world of nutrition advice. Looking over the historical and current evidence, it seems that humans can actually do just fine at both end of that particular spectrum. Two conclusions leap out at us:
- It’s possible to heal our gut with both a plant-based diet or a carnivorous diet. We may need to experiment to find which is best for us!
- The one thing all the experts agree one is that processed food is terrible for our health!
It boils down to this: processed foods can be considered as a kind of “poison” to the body. We need to avoid them like the plague!
- Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort BMJ 2018;360:k322