top of page

Is Processed Food Bad For You?

Updated: Mar 21, 2023



One of the core reasons why we eat so poorly today is due to the overabundance of processed food in our diet. Recently, I’ve been curious about what exactly is so bad about processed food. After all, it is still food, right?


But the general consensus everywhere seems to be that processed food is all bad and we should avoid it. Because I am the kind of person who generally dismisses blanket statements with skepticism, I decided to research this topic to find out the truth about processed food. Is it really all bad? If so, what exactly is bad about it? And are there any processed foods that are actually good for us? The truth was quite surprising.



 

Highlights


  • Processed food is a core reason for poor diets, but not all processed foods are bad.


  • The NOVA classification system categorizes processed foods into four groups based on the level of food processing.


  • Ultra-processed foods with added sugars and salt are associated with negative health outcomes like obesity, type two diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.


 

What Is Processed Food?



When we think of processed foods, most of us think of packaged snacks, but it turns out that not all processed foods are necessarily bad for us. In order to understand the health implications of eating processed food, we first have to define what exactly processed food is.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines any food that has been changed from its original state–no matter how minimally–as processed food [1].


Washing, cutting, chopping, pulverizing, pasteurizing, cooking, canning, freezing, and drying are all common food processing techniques, but adding salt, sugars, artificial flavors, and other ingredients to enhance flavor or increase shelf-life is the more unhealthy kind of food processing.


These “ready-to-eat” foods include things like microwave popcorn, lunch meat, frozen meals, crackers, cookies, sugary drinks, and more. As much as 60 percent of the foods Americans consume are ultra-processed–a trend that also coincides directly with the obesity crisis.


Foods we don’t tend to think of as processed such as frozen vegetables or unsweetened applesauce are processed too, but the processing they undergo is very minimal. This makes minimally processed foods less of a health concern; after all, our ancestors have been doing that for centuries.


Think of smoking or drying meat, pickling, canning fruits and vegetables, or hand-grinding whole grains into flour. These food processing techniques are all considered “minimal.” That is also why some processed foods are linked with lower rates of chronic diseases like olive oil or rolled oats.



NOVA Classification System: A Tool to Understand How Processed a Food Is


As it turns out, there is now a great way to distinguish between different types of processed foods using the NOVA food classification system. The NOVA system breaks down processed foods into four categories which are:






Group 1 foods are either completely unaltered, such as an apple, or have undergone very minimal processing such as cleaning, freezing, or refrigerating. Group one processed foods do not add anything to a food such as sugar or salt.


Group 2 foods also add nothing to the food but break food apart by pressing or grinding. Going with the apple example, unsweetened apple sauce would constitute this type of food.


Group 3 foods undergo food processing by adding ingredients such as sugar, salt, or fat, in addition to removing things like fiber, usually for food preservation and palatability purposes. Sweetened applesauce or apple juice with added sugar is a less-than-healthy example of this; tomato paste or freshly-made cheese is a healthier example.



Ultra Processed Foods: The Unhealthy Side of Processed Food


Lastly, Group 4 foods are made from substances synthesized in labs such as flavor enhancers and food coloring, and are usually “ready to eat.” Think boxed apple pie which has added colors, preservatives, and highly refined ingredients like sugar and white flour. Group 1 foods are usually absent from ultra-processed foods, and they look nothing like the original raw ingredient.


The NOVA classification system is a useful tool for determining the degree of food processing. In general, the more ingredients you see on a food label–especially those you don’t easily recognize–indicate a higher level of food processing.


In general, most Group 1-3 foods are healthy and not associated with poor health outcomes with the exception of added sugars, fruit juices, highly salted foods, and fermented (alcoholic) beverages. Outside of those few caveats,


Ultra-processed foods are where we run into most of the trouble when it comes to poor health outcomes like increased risk for type two diabetes and heart disease.


This is good news because it means that you can certainly have some processed foods while enjoying good health. But because the majority of foods on the center aisles of the grocery store are Group 4 foods, you should try to be conscious when grocery shopping.



What Are The Health Effects of Eating Too Much Processed Food?



As aforementioned, research supports that ultra-processed foods and processed foods with added sugars/salt appear to have the most damaging health effects.


For instance, a five-year study conducted by the American Institute for Cancer Research found that every ten percent increase in ultra-processed food consumption is paired with a staggering 12 percent jump in cancer rates [2].


The high amounts of added sugars and salt added to these foods for flavor and food preservation also contribute to the growing epidemic of obesity and type two diabetes. Research supports a strong association between the intake of sugary beverages and an increase in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease [1, 2].



Processed Food and Metabolic Syndrome: How Unhealthy Ingredients Affect Our Health



One way that processed food impacts health is by contributing to metabolic syndrome, a condition characterized by a conglomerate of related conditions such as insulin resistance, abnormal blood lipids, high blood pressure, and obesity–especially in the midsection.


By removing the fiber and adding copious amounts of sugar, salt, and other junk ingredients like hydrogenated oils that contribute to pre-disease pathways like inflammation and insulin resistance, you feed metabolic syndrome.


Metabolic syndrome is a precursor to many of the chronic diseases we see today such as heart disease, stroke, type two diabetes, and possibly certain cancers such as colorectal and breast which are now linked to excess visceral fat. Simply put, the less ultra-processed food you eat, the healthier you’ll be for it.



Why Are Processed Foods So Addictive?



Almost all of us can attest to the addictive quality of processed food, whether it be the delicious crunch of french fries or the sweet tang of a cola beverage, or the smooth, creaminess of an ice cream cone. There is no denying these foods are hard to resist for one reason alone: they taste great.


Former FDA commissioner David Kessler, MD, told NPR in a 2010 interview “[There’s a] biological basis for why it's so hard for millions of Americans to resist food. We are all wired to focus on the most [rewarding] stimuli in our environment. For some of us, it could be alcohol; it could be illegal drugs; it could be gambling, sex, or tobacco. For many of us, though, one of the most [rewarding] stimuli in our environment is food. And how do you make food even more [rewarding]? Fat, sugar, and salt [3].”


Even though all of these ingredients have existed for centuries, it was only recently that food scientists discovered how to combine them in such a way that they are extremely addictive. For example, food scientists strive for reaching the “Bliss Point” when determining how much sugar, fat, and salt to add to a new food product. This is the ratio of sweetness, saltiness, and richness that is most irresistible.


Dopamine is our pleasure and reward reinforcement system –the chemical that doesn’t care if something is good or bad for us–so long as it releases dopamine. This was helpful when food was scarce and we needed to eat a lot of it at once in order to survive a rainier day, but today we are eating all the time, yet dopamine’s function as a biological gas pedal remains.


Kesler believes that the food industry leverages this primitive system to its advantage, stating “...the food industry knows that layering fat on top of sugar on top of salt makes the food that much harder for the brain to resist [3].”



How Does Processed Food Affect The Environment?



Unfortunately, the effects of ultra-processed food are not limited to ill health effects, as if that weren’t bad enough. Processed food also has a devastating impact on the environment. The meat industry is a prime example of this.


For example, while meat production continues to grow at a rate of 2-3 percent per year, it is a terribly inefficient food source that requires a substantial amount of energy to produce only a tiny portion of meat [4]. Meat production also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation.


But writing meat off all together may not be the answer either. Kyle Jaster, a regenerative family farmer who spoke with The Washington Post believes that sustainable, regenerative livestock is the key to a better future for both our health and our planet [5].


Jaster owns a small, family-owned and operated pig farm in Upstate New York, where his pigs roam freely in the woods and eat a diverse diet of grasses, nuts, foraged foods, and non-genetically modified grains.


He points out that animals are essential for supporting natural ecosystems. For instance, the Great Plains region was at its most vibrant when herds of buffalo fed on the land, eating the grasses and fertilizing it in their wake.


Humanely raised cattle actually support pollinators and neutralize carbon, but when wild grasslands are suddenly covered in crops for the purposes of large-scale industrial farming like we see today, as much as 50 percent of the carbon is released into the environment, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.


Still, Americans eat a lot of meat–to the tune of 225 pounds per person. If we ate less meat and only meat that was produced from small, sustainable farms, meat might be a more sustainable food.



Revitalize Your Eating Habits: Seek Expert Guidance Today



Ultra-processed food has led us down a destructive path–both for our planet and for our health. Issues of food sustainability, ultra-processed food, and dubious food science have simply not paved the way to a happier, healthier humankind.


Aside from a lack of ultra-processed food, past practices around food were far more diverse than they are today. Culture played a much more substantive role in how food was prepared, shared, and consumed. Food was viewed as medicine. More time was spent outdoors in nature.


The importance of community and each role a person played–whether a child, parent, or elder–was vital to the functioning of the entire community, and this holistic, communal approach weaved its way into the food culture of the day, benefiting the health of the whole tribe or community. If we could revive even a fragment of this lifestyle, we could perhaps revive our health.


Fortunately, Registered Dietitian Melinda Washington knows all about this way of life and how it can help you repair your broken relationship with food. That’s why I’d strongly encourage you to book a session with her today.





Related Questions


What processed food to avoid?


It's best to avoid processed foods high in added sugars, unhealthy fats, and artificial additives. These include things like sugary drinks, packaged snacks, and processed meats.


How can you tell if food is processed?


You can tell if food is processed by looking at the ingredients list. If it contains a long list of unfamiliar and hard-to-pronounce ingredients, it's likely highly processed.


What can I eat instead of processed foods?


You can eat whole foods instead of processed foods. Whole foods include things like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. These foods are generally more nutrient-dense and better for your health.


Does processed food make you fat?


Consuming too much processed food can contribute to weight gain, but it's not the only factor. Factors like calorie intake, physical activity, and genetics also play a role in weight management.




References:

  1. Processed Foods and Health. Harvard T.H Chan - School of Public Health. 2022. Accessed October 20, 2022. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/processed-foods/

  2. The Many Health Risks of Processed Foods. Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America. April, 2019. Accessed October 20, 2022. https://www.lhsfna.org/the-many-health-risks-of-processed-foods/#:~:text=Heavily%20processed%20foods%20often%20include,high%20blood%20pressure%20and%20diabetes.

  3. Scary Food Science. Experience Life by Life Time. October, 2010. Accessed October 19, 2022. https://experiencelife.lifetime.life/article/scary-food-science/

  4. The meat industry is unsustainable, report finds. Food Dive. March, 2020. Accessed October 20, 2022. https://www.fooddive.com/news/the-meat-industry-is-unsustainable-report-finds/574896/

  5. Ditching meat isn’t the answer to climate change. Better farming is. The Washington Post. May, 2021. Accessed October 20, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/ditching-meat-isnt-the-answer-for-climate-change-better-farming-is/2021/05/14/86001c36-b426-11eb-ab43-bebddc5a0f65_story.html



35 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page