Processed Foods: Are They Harmful?

Processed Foods: Are They Harmful?

The war on processed foods has been popping up more and more. When we think of the term “processed”, our minds tend to think about highly processed, packaged, “unhealthy” foods like chips, candy or pop. But what about foods like oats or quinoa which are processed from their original form? Are all processed foods “bad for us”? 

In this article, we are going to define processed foods and help you understand which processed foods can be harmful to your health. 

What are processed foods? 

People often use the term “processed foods” incorrectly. In fact, “processed foods” is a very high level definition given to the transformation of agricultural products into food products. So, to put it simply, processing can mean anything from harvesting, cleaning and packaging dried quinoa to combining ingredients to create candy. When we look at the definition, we can clearly see that not all processed foods are bad for us. In fact, many of the nutritious foods that we should be including in our daily diets are processed to some degree. 

However, we can use the degree of processing to distinguish between processed foods that are good for our health and those that are bad for our health. Minimally processed food are things like the quinoa listed above, dried legumes, packaged nuts, milk, etc. These tend to be whole foods that are lightly processed to turn them into consumable products that we can purchase at the grocery store. Whereas ultra-processed foods are ones that go through multiple processes, ingredient additions and high manipulation to create a food product. Examples of these foods include things like soft drinks, candy, potato chips, ice cream, many packaged frozen meals or even packaged cereals. 

Ultra-processed foods and our health

A 2019 research study found that people who ate ultra-processed foods consumed more calories and gained more weight than those who did not. That’s because these foods tend to be higher in fat, calories, salt and sugar than less processed foods. Many food manufacturers will add these extra ingredients to make products taste better or last longer on the shelf, without keeping their consumers' health in mind. 

Diets that are consistently high in unhealthy saturated fats and sodium can lead to high blood pressure or heart disease. Too much sugar can lead to type 2 diabetes, and excessive calories can lead to weight gain. It’s important to ensure that we are limiting the amount of ultra-processed foods that we include in our diets. 

Here are some tips for swapping some of the ultra-processed foods in your diet for more nutritious, whole foods: 

  • View ultra-processed foods, like potato chips, candy or baked goods, as a treat that you include in your diet once in a while. Foods you include in your daily eating plan should include nutritious, whole foods like whole grains, proteins, fruits and vegetables! 
  • Got a sweet tooth? Try making your own baked goods at home. Home-made versions of muffins, cakes or cookies tend to be lower in sugar and fat than the ones that you buy in a package at the grocery store or your local cafe. 
  • If you’re in a pinch and need to purchase a frozen dinner or canned item, look for the ones that have the simplest ingredients and the least amount of salt. 
  • Craving salty snacks? Try making homemade kale chips or sweet potato fries and season them with a little bit of sea salt and fresh or dried herbs. The salt we add at the table is often significantly less than what food manufacturers add during food processing. 

Looking for more help swapping some of the ultra-processed foods out of your diet? We offer free nutritionist consultations with any of our meal plans. In addition to nutritionist approved meals, you will get a plan tailored towards your health goals! 

References: 

Hall KD, Ayuketah A, Brychta R, et al. Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake [published correction appears in Cell Metab. 2019 Jul 2;30(1):226]. Cell Metab. 2019;30(1):67-77.e3. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2019.05.008

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