9 Ways That Processed Foods Are Harming People
Processed foods are bad. They are the main reason why people all over the world are getting fat and sick. How do we know? Every time a population adopts a “Western” diet high in processed foods, they get sick.
It happens within a few years. Their genes don’t change, their food does.
Real vs Processed Food
The word “processed” often causes some confusion, so let me clarify what I mean. Obviously, most foods we eat are processed in some way. Apples are cut from trees, ground beef has been ground in a machine and butter is cream that has been separated from the milk and churned. But there is a difference between mechanical processing and chemical processing. If it’s a single ingredient food with no added chemicals, then it doesn’t matter if it’s been ground or put into a jar. It’s still real food.
However… foods that have been chemically processed and made solely from refined ingredients and artificial substances, are what is generally known as “processed food.”
Here are 9 ways that processed foods are bad for your health.
- Processed Foods Are Usually High in Sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup
Processed foods are usually loaded with added sugar… or its evil twin, High Fructose Corn Syrup. It is well known that sugar, when consumed in excess, is seriously harmful. As we all know, sugar is “empty” calories – it has no essential nutrients, but a large amount of energy. But empty calories are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the harmful effects of sugar…
Many studies show that sugar can have devastating effects on metabolism that go way beyond its calorie content. It can lead to insulin resistance, high triglycerides, increased levels of the harmful cholesterol and increased fat accumulation in the liver and abdominal cavity. Not surprisingly, sugar consumption is strongly associated with some of the world’s leading killers… including heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer.
Most people aren’t putting massive amounts of sugar in their coffee or on top of their cereal, they’re getting it from processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Bottom Line: Processed foods and beverages are the biggest sources of added sugar (and HFCS) in the diet. Sugar is very unhealthy and can have serious adverse effects on metabolism when consumed in excess.
- Processed Foods Are “Hyper Rewarding” and Lead to Overconsumption
We all want to eat good food. That’s just human nature. Evolution provided us with taste buds that are supposed to help us navigate the natural food environment. Our appetite gravitates towards foods that are sweet, salty and fatty, because we know such foods contain energy and nutrients that we need for survival.
Obviously, if a food manufacturer wants to succeed and get people to buy their product, it has to taste good.
But today, the competition is fierce. There are many different food manufacturers, all competing with each other.
For this reason, massive resources are spent on making foods as desirable as possible. Many processed foods have been engineered to be so incredibly “rewarding” to the brain, that they overpower anything we might have come across in nature. We have complicated mechanisms in our bodies and brains that are supposed to regulate energy balance (how much we eat and how much we burn) – which, until very recently in evolutionary history, worked to keep us at a healthy weight.
There is quite a lot of evidence that the reward value of foods can bypass the innate defense mechanism and make us start eating much more than we need, so much that it starts to compromise our health. This is also known as the “food reward hypothesis of obesity.” The truth is, processed foods are so incredibly rewarding to our brains that they affect our thoughts and behavior, making us eat more and more until eventually we become sick.
Good food is good, but foods that are engineered to be hyper rewarding, effectively short circuiting our innate brakes against overconsumption, are NOT good.
Bottom Line: Food manufacturers spend massive amounts of resources on making their foods as “rewarding” as possible to the brain, which leads to overconsumption.
- Processed Foods Contain All Sorts of Artificial Ingredients
If you look at the ingredients label for a processed, packaged food, chances are that you won’t have a clue what some of the ingredients are. That’s because many of the ingredients in there aren’t actual food… they are artificial chemicals that are added for various purposes. This is an example of a processed food, an Atkins Advantage bar, which is actually marketed as a low-carb friendly health food.
I don’t know what this is, but it most certainly isn’t food. Highly processed foods often contain:
- Preservatives: Chemicals that prevent the food from rotting.
- Colorants: Chemicals that are used to give the food a specific color.
- Flavor: Chemicals that give the food a particular flavor.
- Texturants: Chemicals that give a particular texture.
Keep in mind that processed foods can contain dozens of additional chemicals that aren’t even listed on the label. For example, “artificial flavor” is a proprietary blend. Manufacturers don’t have to disclose exactly what it means and it is usually a combination of chemicals. For this reason, if you see “artificial flavor” on an ingredients list, it could mean that there are 10 or more additional chemicals that are blended in to give a specific flavor. Of course, most of these chemicals have allegedly been tested for safety. But given that the regulatory authorities still think that sugar and vegetable oils are safe, I personally take their “stamp of approval” with a grain of salt.
Bottom Line: Most highly processed foods are loaded with artificial chemicals, including flavorants, texturants, colorants and preservatives.
- Many People Can Literally Become Addicted to Processed Junk Foods
The “hyper rewarding” nature of processed foods can have serious consequences for some people. Some people can literally become addicted to this stuff and completely lose control over their consumption. Although food addiction is something that most people don’t know about, I am personally convinced that it is a huge problem in society today.
It is the main reason why some people just can’t stop eating these foods, no matter how hard they try.
They’ve had their brain biochemistry hijacked by the intense dopamine release that occurs in the brain when they eat these foods. This is actually supported by many studies. Sugar and highly rewarding junk foods activate the same areas in the brain as drugs of abuse like cocaine.
Bottom Line: For many people, junk foods can hijack the biochemistry of the brain, leading to downright addiction and cause them to lose control over their consumption.
- Processed Foods Are Often High in Refined Carbohydrates
There is a lot of controversy regarding carbohydrates in the diet. Some people think that the majority of our energy intake should be from carbs, while others think they should be avoided like the plague.
But one thing that almost everyone agrees on, is that carbohydrates from whole foods are much better than refined carbohydrates.
Processed foods are often high in carbs, but it is usually the refined variety. One of the main problems is that refined, “simple” carbohydrates are quickly broken down in the digestive tract, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels. This can lead to carb cravings a few hours later when blood sugar levels go down again. This phenomenon is also called the “blood sugar roller coaster” – which many people who have been on a high-carb diet can relate to.
Not surprisingly, eating a lot of refined carbohydrates is associated with negative health effects and many chronic diseases. Do NOT be fooled by labels like “whole grains” that are often plastered on processed food packages, including breakfast cereals. These are usually whole grains that have been pulverized into very fine flour and are just as harmful as their refined counterparts. If you’re going to eat carbs, get them from whole, single ingredient foods, not processed junk foods.
Bottom Line: The carbohydrates you find in processed foods are usually refined, “simple” carbohydrates. These lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels and cause negative health effects.
- Most Processed Foods Are Low in Nutrients
Processed foods are extremely low in essential nutrients compared to whole, unprocessed foods. In some cases, synthetic vitamins and minerals are added to the foods to compensate for what was lost during processing. However, synthetic nutrients are NOT a good replacement for the nutrients found in whole foods.
Also, let’s not forget that real foods contain much more than just the standard vitamins and minerals that we’re all familiar with.
Real foods… like plants and animals, contain thousands of other trace nutrients that science is just beginning to grasp. Maybe one day we will invent a chemical blend that can replace all these nutrients, but until that happens… the only way to get them in your diet is to eat whole, unprocessed foods.
The more you eat of processed foods, the less you will get of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and various trace nutrients.
Bottom Line: There are many nutrients found in whole foods that are not found in processed foods. The more processed foods you eat, the less you will get of these nutrients.
- Processed Foods Tend to be Low in Fiber
Fiber, especially soluble, fermentable fiber, has various benefits. One of the main ones is that it functions as a prebiotic, feeding the friendly bacteria in the intestine. There is also evidence that fiber can slow down the absorption of carbohydrates and help us feel more satisfied with fewer calories. Soluble fiber can also help treat many cases of constipation, which is a very common problem today. The fiber that is found naturally in foods is often lost during processing, or intentionally removed. Therefore, most processed foods are very low in fiber.
Bottom Line: Soluble, fermentable fiber has various important health benefits, but most processed foods are very low in fiber because it is lost or intentionally removed during processing.
- It Requires Less Energy and Time to Digest Processed Foods
Food manufacturers want their processed food products to have a long shelf life. They also want each batch of the product to have a similar consistency and they want their foods to be easily consumed. Given the way foods are processed, they are often very easy to chew and swallow. Sometimes, it’s almost as if they melt in your mouth.
Most of the fiber has been taken out and the ingredients are refined, isolated nutrients that don’t resemble the whole foods they came from. One consequence of this is that it takes less energy to eat and digest processed foods. We can eat more of them in a shorter amount of time (more calories in) and we also burn less energy (fewer calories out) digesting them than we would if they were unprocessed, whole foods.
One study in 17 healthy men and women compared the difference in energy expenditure after consuming a processed vs a whole foods-based meal.
They ate a sandwich, either with multi-grain bread and cheddar cheese (whole foods) or with white bread and processed cheese (processed foods). It turned out that they burned twice as many calories digesting the unprocessed meal. The Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) is a measure of how much different foods stimulate energy expenditure after eating. It totals about 10% of total energy expenditure (metabolic rate) in the average person. According to this study, people who eat processed food will cut their TEF in half, effectively reducing the amount of calories they burn throughout the day.
Bottom Line: We only burn half as many calories digesting and metabolizing processed foods compared to whole foods.
- Processed Foods Are Often High in Trans Fats or Processed Vegetable Oils
Processed foods are often high in unhealthy fats. They usually contain cheap fats, refined seed- and vegetable oils (like soybean oil) that are often hydrogenated… which turns them into trans fats. Vegetable oils are extremely unhealthy and most people are eating way too much of them already. These fats contain excessive amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids, which can drive oxidation and inflammation in the body.
Several studies show that when people eat more of these oils, they have a significantly increased risk of heart disease, which is the most common cause of death in Western countries today. If the fats are hydrogenated, that makes them even worse. Hydrogenated (trans) fats are among the nastiest, unhealthiest substances you can put into your body. The best way to avoid seed oils and trans fats is to avoid processed foods. Eat real fats like butter, coconut oil and olive oil instead.
Just Eat Real Food!
When we replace real, traditional foods like butter, meat and vegetables with crappy, processed junk foods, we get fat and sick. Real food is the key to good health, processed food is not. Period.
The Health Benefits of Coffee
For many Americans, waking up to a piping hot cup of coffee is the only way to start the morning. The good news for most people is that research now tell us that coffee has a slew positive effects for your overall health in addition to ensuring you’re bright eyed and bushy tailed in the morning.
It turns out the benefits of coffee are almost endless. Read on to find out exactly what they are.
Why Processed Meat is Bad For You
Processed meat is generally considered unhealthy. It has been linked with diseases like cancer and heart disease in numerous studies. There is no doubt that processed meat contains many harmful chemicals that are not naturally present in fresh meat. This article takes a detailed look at the health effects of processed meat.
What is Processed Meat?
Processed meat is meat that has been preserved by curing, salting, smoking, drying or canning. Food products categorized as processed meat include:
- Sausages, hot dogs, salami.
- Bacon, ham.
- Salted and cured meat, corned beef.
- Smoked meat.
- Dried meat, beef jerky.
- Canned meat.
On the other hand, meat that has been frozen or undergone mechanical processing like cutting and slicing is still considered unprocessed.
Bottom Line: All meat that has been smoked, salted, cured, dried or canned is considered processed. This includes sausages, hot dogs, salami, bacon and ham.
Eating Processed Meat is Associated with an Unhealthy Lifestyle
Processed meat has consistently been linked with harmful effects on health. This is a fact that health-conscious people have been aware of for decades. For this reason, eating high amounts of processed meat is more common among people with unhealthy lifestyle habits. In fact, smoking is more common among those who eat lots of processed meat. Their intake of fruit and vegetables is also much lower.
Most observational studies on processed meat and health outcomes try to correct for these factors. However, these methods are never perfect. It is possible that the links found between processed meat and disease are partly due to the fact that people who eat processed meat tend to do other things that are not associated with good health. Nevertheless, studies consistently find strong links between processed meat consumption and various chronic diseases.
Bottom Line: People who are not health-conscious tend to eat more processed meat. This may partly explain some of the associations found in studies investigating processed meat consumption and disease.
Processed Meat is Linked with Chronic Disease
Eating processed meat is associated with increased risk of many chronic diseases.
- High blood pressure (hypertension).
- Heart disease.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Bowel and stomach cancer.
The studies on processed meat consumption in humans are all observational in nature. They can show that people who eat processed meat are more likely to get these diseases, but they ca not prove that the processed meat caused them. Even so, the evidence is convincing because the links are strong and consistent.
Additionally, all of this is supported by studies in animals. For example, studies in rats show that eating processed meat raises the risk of bowel cancer. One thing is clear, processed meat contains harmful chemical compounds that may increase the risk of chronic disease. The most widely studied compounds are discussed here below.
Bottom Line: Eating high amounts of processed meat over a long period may increase the risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer.
Nitrite, N-Nitroso Compounds and Nitrosamines
N-nitroso compounds are cancer-causing substances believed to be responsible for some of the adverse effects of processed meat consumption. They are formed from nitrite (sodium nitrite) that is added to processed meat products.
Sodium nitrite is used as an additive for 3 reasons:
- To preserve the red/pink color of meat.
- To improve flavor by suppressing fat oxidation (rancidification).
- To prevent the growth of bacteria, improving flavor and cutting the risk of food poisoning.
Nitrite and related compounds, such as nitrate, are also found in other foods. For example, nitrate is found in relatively high levels in some vegetables and may even be beneficial for health.
However, not all nitrite is the same. Nitrite in processed meat can turn into harmful N-nitroso compounds, the most widely studied of which are nitrosamines.
Processed meat is the main dietary source of nitrosamines. Other sources include contaminated drinking water, tobacco smoke, and salted and pickled foods. Nitrosamines are mainly formed when processed meat products are exposed to high heat (above 266°F or 130°C), such as when frying bacon or grilling sausages.
Studies in animals indicate that nitrosamines may play a major role in the formation of bowel cancer.
This is supported by observational studies in humans, indicating that nitrosamines may increase the risk of stomach and bowel cancer.
Bottom Line: Processed meat that is fried or grilled may contain relatively high levels of nitrosamines. Studies suggest that these compounds may increase the risk of cancer in the stomach and bowel.
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)
Meat smoking is one of the oldest preservation methods, often used in combination with salting or drying.
It leads to the formation of various potentially harmful substances. These include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are a large class of substances that form when organic matter burns.
They are transferred into the air with smoke and accumulate on the surface of smoked meat products and meat that is barbecued, grilled or roasted over an open fire.
They can be formed from:
- Burning wood or charcoal.
- Dripping fat that burns on a hot surface.
- Burnt or charred meat.
For this reason, smoked meat products can be high in PAHs. It is believed that PAHs may contribute to some of the adverse health effects of processed meat. Numerous studies in animals have shown that some PAHs can cause cancer.
Bottom Line: Smoked meat products may contain high amounts of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These compounds have been shown to cause cancer in animals.
Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs)
Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are a class of chemical compounds that form when meat or fish is cooked under high temperature, such as during frying or grilling. They are not restricted to processed meat, but significant amounts can be found in sausages, fried bacon and meat burgers. HCAs cause cancer when given to animals in high amounts. Generally speaking, these amounts are much higher than those normally found in the human diet.
Nevertheless, numerous observational studies in humans indicate that eating well-done meat may increase the risk of cancer in the colon, breast and prostate. The level of HCAs can be minimized by using gentle cooking methods, such as frying under low heat and steaming. Avoid eating charred, blackened meat.
Bottom Line: Some processed meat products may contain heterocyclic amines (HCAs), carcinogenic compounds also found in well-done meat and fish.
Processed meat products are usually high in sodium chloride, also known as table salt. For thousands of years, salt has been added to food products as a preservative. However, it is most often used to improve taste.
Although processed meat is far from being the only food that is high in salt, it may contribute significantly to the salt intake of many people.
Excessive salt consumption may play a role in hypertension and heart disease, especially in those who have a condition called salt-sensitive hypertension. In addition, several observational studies indicate that diets high in salt may increase the risk of stomach cancer. This is supported by studies showing that a high-salt diet may increase the growth of Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that causes stomach ulcers, which are an important risk factor for stomach cancer. Adding some salt to whole foods to improve flavor is fine, but eating massive amounts from processed foods may very well cause harm.
Bottom Line: Processed meat products contain large amounts of salt, which may contribute to some health problems.
Take Home Message
Processed meat contains various chemical compounds that are not naturally present in fresh meat. Many of these compounds are harmful to health. For this reason, eating a lot of processed meat products for a long period (years or decades) may increase the risk of chronic disease, especially cancer. However, eating them occasionally is fine. Just make sure not to let them dominate your diet and avoid eating them every day.
At the end of the day, you should limit your intake of processed foods and base your diet on fresh whole foods.
Manufacturers Seeking Natural Ways to Extend Foods’ Shelf Life
Keeping food fresh, safe and appealing is the ultimate goal of any food manufacturer, but there are new challenges now that clean, free-from ingredients and minimal processing are in such high demand.
With the trend toward clean labels, consumers are carefully checking ingredient lists to find the fewest or safest-sounding ingredients and the least amount of “processing.” One of the most difficult challenges in that regard is to find natural ways to extend shelf life. Shelf life isn’t just a way to track days or weeks on a store shelf; it involves microbial activity, mold/yeast development, lipid oxidation, flavor, aroma and color as well as usability at home. A food’s shelf life relies on such factors as the type of process and formulation involved, the packaging used and storage conditions. But in the end, shelf life extension involves additives.
“Shelf life extension is a multifaceted need,” observes Angie Singer, sales and marketing director at Delavau Food Partners (www.delavaufood.com), Philadelphia. “It’s more than a matter of inhibiting mold growth; it’s a priority to maintain texture and mouthfeel as well as achieve a clean label. It’s challenging to reformulate for a clean label while retaining the necessary shelf life and maintaining the eating experience customers know and love.”
In many ways, shelf life is synonymous with food safety. The two goals are intertwined in the IsoStat Products Group from Newly Weds Foods (www.newlywedsfoods.com), Chicago. Rosemary extracts, vinegar and lemon juice, as well as sodium citrate, potassium citrate and sodium diacetate form the basis of a handful of products that improve levels of food safety by extending shelf life and otherwise controlling the oxidation and spoilage of several categories of food.
Jerry Erdmann, principal scientist at DuPont Nutrition & Health (www.dupont.com), New Century, Kan., finds the challenges facing extended shelf life are the removal of historical approaches or hurdles used to control spoilage and reduce oxidation. “Chemical preservatives have a history of success, and significant scientific data supports their effectiveness,” he says. “They’re cost-effective, easy to use and forgiving when incorporated into the product.
“Alternative antimicrobials or antioxidant products are still relatively new in the market, with much less historical understanding,” he continues. “It’s important that customers understand the use, cost, flavor impact, effectiveness and shelf life expectation of finished products using chemical alternatives.” It’s also critical, he says, that manufacturers do their due diligence to assure the desired antimicrobial properly addresses their concerns. “The changing or removal of fats from a food system will change how the antimicrobials and antioxidants function,” Erdmann notes. For example, “Going to more unsaturated fats increases the potential risk of oxidation.”
Maintaining meat’s color
Many consumers base their meat purchases on a product’s color. An indicator of freshness and wholesomeness is a bright red hue, whereas discolored meat often gets discounted or is wasted, though it might still be safe to eat. “For consumers, discoloration determines whether or not a meat product is still safe to eat,” says Paul Janthial, food & beverage business unit director at France’s Naturex (www.naturex.com). “As even highly processed meat products such as sausages are now subject to clean and clear label trends, manufacturers need to find ways to keep the color appeal of these products while losing the artificial additives.”
Rosemary is gaining ground in the market as a safe, effective alternative to synthetic shelf life extenders such as BHA, BHT and the antioxidant TBHQ. Naturex provides a range of natural antioxidants obtained from rosemary, acerola, celery, Swiss chard, pomegranate and green tea. “They can enhance microbiological stability to keep foods safe for consumption or enhance organoleptic stability to keep colors and flavors intense and prevent off-notes,” Janthial explains. “Each ingredient must be backed by exhaustive shelf life studies conducted on each application type. The antioxidants in these extracts protect the color, flavor and aspect of the finished product while keeping the label clear of unfriendly additives.”
Naturex’s XtraBlend is a new acerola cherry powder and onion blend that boosts shelf life of meat products by as much as five days in chilled products and can also preserve color. Xtrablend OA antioxidant uses acerola powder in ascorbic acid and onion extract in polyphenols to protect color without impacting meat’s overall taste. In tests on fresh, refrigerated pork sausages, Xtrablend OA performed similarly to conventional BHA/BHT antioxidants, helping the sausages keep their color while exhibiting a low oxidation rate.
Vitamin E and tocopherols, which are fat-soluble alcohols with antioxidant properties, can improve the stability of myoglobin in ground beef, better retaining the color of final products. Archer Daniels Midland Co. (www.adm.com), Chicago, says the natural form of vitamin E, d-alpha-tocopherol, is better retained by the body than the synthetic form (dl-alpha-tocopherol). Tocopherols are important to stabilize cell membranes and can be used in fats, oils and many fat-containing food products.
Mixed tocopherols from ADM’s Novatol Natural-Source vitamin E line provide plant-based alternatives that comply with the FDA’s new Nutrition Facts labeling regulations that went into effect in July — these require manufacturers using synthetically produced vitamin E to incorporate twice as much to meet the same amount of naturally-sourced vitamin E. ADM sources Novatol vitamin E from vegetable oils. Mike Zora, general manager of Natural Health and Nutrition for ADM, says Novatol delivers a more concentrated level of vitamin E than synthetically produced alternatives.
With low-salt demands so prevalent, especially since the FDA’s June release of its draft on sodium reduction targets, processors are cutting back on salt to control moisture and water activity. Corbion Caravan Ingredients (www.corbion.com) says its recently expanded Verdad Avanta line delivers low-salt benefits with a blend of vinegar and either jasmine tea extract, citrus flour or celery powder to provide fresh meats and poultry with color and flavor stability days longer, as they control oxidation. They can also enhance yield, depending on the application, control Listeria and improve texture.
Shelf life extension was not the goal behind Newly Weds Foods’ new DefenStat product, but it’s a side benefit of this clean-label antimicrobial. Aimed at raw meat and poultry, DefenStat addresses the three systemic failures leading to E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks: It inhibits pathogen proliferation, reduces cross-contamination risk and enhances pathogen susceptibility to heat. A liquid, it can be applied directly to ground products and to whole muscle meats by marination.
Fresh baked goods
Baked goods are another category with major shelf life concerns. Delavau’s Encore Fresh antimicrobial agent can more than double the shelf life of pita bread, from 10 to 21 days, while Encore Soft AM combines antimicrobial and anti-staling capabilities and helps maintain softness of baked goods so they taste fresh from 30 to 45 days.
Naturex’s NatStabil antioxidants are derived from rosemary, which is lipid soluble, and preserves color and flavor. It keeps baked goods, seasonings, cereal-based snacks, sauces and stocks, oils and fats and meat and poultry fresher longer. According to Janthial, rosemary extracts work well in many applications as replacements for BHT and BHA.
DuPont Nutrition & Health’s array of antimicrobial and antioxidant products address microbiological spoilage and oxidation with a focus on cleaner label solutions. But the products also include chemical and synthetic solutions to address spoilage and oxidation where cleaner label solutions are not needed.
Antimicrobials include MicroGuard whole faction fermentates, purified metabolites, such as Nisaplin Nisin A (a natural mold inhibitor), Natamax natamycin and the BioVia product line of yeast and mold inhibitors derived from dextrose and plant extracts.
Designed for fat- and oil-containing foods, BioVia includes YM 10, which guards against mold and yeasts at levels comparable to those experienced with the synthetic preservative potassium sorbate, but is a cleaner label ingredient, Erdmann explains. HoldBAC protective cultures can be added as an adjunct to fresh fermented dairy products to produce metabolites that combat microbes like yeast and mold spoilage.
Guardian antioxidant plant extracts are available in natural options like rosemary, green tea and tocopherols that help guard foods from spoilage and maintain their intrinsic sensory qualities.