Processed foods differ from fresh foods. They are fresh foods that are processed by certain methods. Food processing by baking, canning, drying or freezing must not lead to an unhealthy food, however: Processed foods may contain high levels of salt, loads of sugar, or high fat and they usually contain less vitamins then the fresh food they are originating from.
“Processed foods may contain high levels of salt and sugar, high fat,
and fewer vitamins then the fresh food they are originating from”
Furthermore, processed foods may contain artificial sweeteners, colorants, emulgators, partially hydrogenated oils, food preservatives and food additives. This has consequences for our health. The increase in allergies might be directly related to the increase of the consumption of highly processed foods, scientists say.
By eating mainly processed foods we are exceeding the recommended daily allowance of salt (sodium) and consuming way too much sugar, which can lead to diabetes. Especially fast foods contain way too much fat and many convenience foods are packed with partially hydrogenated oils, which are the primary dietary source for trans-fats. Artificial sweeteners have implications in many different diseases and can contribute to obesity, type-2 diabetes and heart disease. And these are only some examples how processed foods can negatively impact our health.
Another term for processed food is convenience food. The word convenience suggests that they are “easy” foods and they also have a more positive connotation than processed foods. However, convenience foods are tertiary processed foods that are commercially prepared to optimise ease of consumption and often have a very long shelf life. There are various convenience foods on the market, like for example:
- Dried soup
- Ready-made or dried pasta dishes
- Frozen pizza
- Soft drinks
- and other fast foods and ready-made meals
But also stuff like ketchup, mayonnaise and all kinds of canned dips and sauces are convenience foods.
What makes processed foods so unhealthy?
The issues with processed foods are the various food ingredients and additives that are not usually present in fresh food, namely artificial sweeteners, colorants, emulgators, partially hydrogenated oils, food preservatives, other food additives and chemicals. Processed foods often contain high levels of salt, loads of sugar, or high fat.
A crucial point if it comes to processed foods or convenience foods is to mention what they do NOT contain. In contrast to fresh foods, processed foods contain way less vitamins, unless they are artificially enriched with vitamins. Also, most processed foods – except of whole grain cereals – contain almost no dietary fibre. Most importantly, processed foods contain almost no phytochemicals.
“Processed foods and convenience foods do NOT contain:
natural vitamins, dietary fibre and phytochemicals”
Phytochemicals are antioxidants that can prevent oxidative stress and protect against cancer. Furthermore, they promote various health benefits, like lowering LDL-cholesterol levels, preventing cardiovascular (heart) disease, diabetes mellitus, and the stimulation of the immune system.
That means by eating mainly convenience foods and processed foods, like fast foods and ready-made meals, you are depriving yourself of a healthy diet containing vitamins, dietary fibre, and phytochemicals! Avoiding processed foods, prepared meals, and fast foods can greatly improve your health, because you are automatically having a more balanced and healthy diet, especially if you follow the recommendations for nutrition.
“Avoiding processed foods, prepared meals, and fast foods
can greatly improve your health”
Because there are so many different food ingredients and additives in processed foods it is virtually impossible to present all the possible threats and only examples can be given here. Because convenience foods are produced by the food industry there are many efforts of claiming these food ingredients are not harming our health. Furthermore, financing a study that might prove a food ingredient to be bad for health is not in the interest of the industry. That´s why there are very few studies proving the harmfulness of food ingredients and additives.
“Very few studies prove the harmfulness of food ingredients,
although they definitely can do harm”
Processed foods can contribute to allergies. Some scientists claim that the increase in food intolerances is directly related to the increase of the consumption of highly processed foods. The main reasons seem to be food ingredients and additives that are not usually present in fresh food.
Salt and trans-fats
In most developed countries, people eat way too much salt. About 80% of consumed salt comes from industry-prepared food. According to Wikipedia, a single serving of many convenience foods contains a significant portion of the recommended daily allowance of sodium.
Partially hydrogenated oils are the primary dietary source for trans-fats. Trans-fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Eating trans-fat increases your risk of developing heart disease, stroke and type-2-diabetes.
A well investigated topic is the effect of artificial sweeteners in processed foods. Importantly, although artificial sweeteners do not contain any energy (unlike sugars), clinical studies suggest that artificial sweeteners can lead to excessive weight gain (obesity), metabolic syndrome, type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular (heart) disease 1,2,3.
“Artificial sweeteners can cause obesity,
type-2 diabetes and heart disease”
A widespread artificial sweetener is aspartame. Aspartame is contained in over 6000 products. Aspartame is contained in all sugar-free soft drinks and even in pharmaceutical drugs and supplements.
“Aspartame is contained in over 6000 products”
You can find aspartame in sugar-free chewing gum, ice-cream, juices, teas, instant coffee, and yogurt. It is often offered as an alternative to sweeten your beverages in tea and coffee shops. A very interesting article4 discusses how artificial sweeteners make us want to eat more sweet food.
“Artificial sweeteners make us want to eat more sweet food
and make us fat”
Artificial sweeteners can change the composition of the human gut flora. This change in the gut flora has strong consequences on the way we are digesting glucose and maintaining blood sugar levels in our body. It is well known that the gut flora of people with diabetes significantly differs from non-diabetic individuals. A recent, fascinating study has shown that that some people with type-2 diabetes can be cured by stool transplantation from healthy individuals.
“Artificial sweeteners can change the composition of the
human gut flora and lead to type-2 diabetes”
If you want to learn more about artificial sweeteners, read more here
A word on fast foods. Fast foods combine all the negative effects for your body´s health mentioned above. They contain huge amounts of food ingredients, also to make us addicted and to make us always want to eat exactly this specific type of fast food. Fast food chains try to give all their products a typical, unmistakable and imitable taste.
But it is a foul taste. Fast foods can contain sugar and artificial sweeteners, and are high in fat. Furthermore, fast foods are often served with carbonated (soft) drinks which contain artificial sweeteners. Eating fast food often involves air swallowing and overeating. Drinking through a straw and eating whilst being in a hurry is a common cause of swallowing air and gases and is more likely to occur when consuming fast food. This eating habit is what makes fast foods by far the biggest culprit for excessive bloating and farting due to food consumption. For these reasons you should, as a rule, avoid the consumption of fast foods!