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Today, people are eating more processed food compared to the past few decades—and it’s easy to see why. It’s conveniently available, making it an absolute time-saver in the kitchen. It’s also usually cheaper and tastier than whole, natural foods while offering a longer shelf life.

With food prices rising, you might think that you have no choice but to join the bandwagon of processed food consumption.

But it’s a compromise you don’t have to make—not with the right processed products.

Some processed foods can be fortified to provide the nutrients we need to thrive and reduce the risk of deficiencies. As such, they can be a healthier option for certain populations while providing key nutrients inexpensively.

Read on to discover what processed foods are, which food groups to consume, and the health risks to watch out for to make more informed decisions about your diet.

First, What Are Processed Foods?

Processed foods refer to any food that has been altered from its natural state. When we say alteration, we’re referring to a broad spectrum of activities that can be as basic as cutting, canning, dehydrating, pasteurizing, drying, freezing, and cooking. Or, it can involve multi-step manufacturing, where many ingredients are combined to create the final product.

Food is processed for a variety of reasons like:

  • To reduce waste
  • To extend its shelf life
  • To make food more digestible
  • To make food available year-round
  • To preserve or enhance its nutritional content
  • To kill harmful microbes and make food safer to consume
  • To increase its palatability

What we eat is—more often than not—governed by our taste buds which is one of the most common reasons for processing food. Tastier fare activates our endogenous reward systems which promote motivated behavior, making us eat more than we planned.

Types of Processed Foods

The NOVA food classification system groups food into four categories:

Group 1: Unprocessed and Minimally Processed Foods

This category includes foods that have been altered “as little as possible,” whether through the removal of inedible or unwanted parts or by methods designed to preserve foods for longer. As such, they retain most of their nutritional properties.

Examples include blueberries, chickpea flour/pasta, chopped vegetables, plain yogurt, roasted nuts, shelled peanuts, unseasoned fish filets, and whole oat groats.

Group 2: Processed Culinary Ingredients

This category includes ingredients that come from nature or are derived from foods in group 1. They’re added to dishes and are rarely eaten on their own.

Examples include oil, butter, lard, sugar, or salt.

Group 3: Processed Foods

Foods in this category are made with a combination of group 1 and group 2 substances, through various processes like cooking and preserving. This is done to increase their shelf-life, enhance their sensory properties, and make food even more enjoyable.

Examples include canned fish, cheese, fresh bread, instant oats with added sugar, natural peanut butter, simple cheeses, and applesauce with ascorbic acid.

Group 4: Ultra-processed Foods

This category includes foods created with industrial techniques and processes.

Usually containing high amounts of salt, sugar, and fat, they can also be riddled with preservatives, artificial flavors and colors, and texturizing agents. They also include some ingredients you’ve probably never heard of such as casein, lactose, gluten, whey, hydrogenated oils, and high-fructose corn syrup.

Examples include apple juice with high fructose syrup, chickpea chips, packaged cookies with oats, store-bought hummus, and packaged frozen veggie burgers.

Are Processed Foods Bad for You?

Not all processed foods are inherently “bad” or unhealthy.

Most foods in their natural form are processed before they reach our plates. Ground beef, and pasteurized foods like milk are some examples. They retain a lot of good-for-you nutrients and freshness—even after processing.

The trouble starts when chemicals enter the picture.

If artificial substances and refined ingredients are mixed in, they can lower the nutritional value of food. It can also cause people to eat more than their recommended amount of calories. Despite this, approximately 60% of the American diet comes from processed foods which can have serious health implications.

Risks of Consuming Large Amounts of Processed Foods

Here are some reasons to watch what and how much processed foods you eat.

Increased Risk of Diabetes

If processed food contains added sugar and refined carbohydrates, it can induce post-prandial surges of glucose and triglycerides in blood levels. This can lead to type 2 diabetes.

Low in Nutrition

Processed foods can offer food security and nutrition security but the more processed they are, the more nutrients are destroyed or removed in the process. So, manufacturers add vitamins and minerals during processing to increase their nutritional content. However, they still lack the healthful compounds that are found in their original form.

Can Lead To Unintentional Weight Gain

Because much of the dietary fiber is lost during processing, processed food is quicker to digest. This means your body burns half as many calories when digesting processed food compared to unprocessed food. This can wreak havoc on your gut and bowel health. In addition, it can also lead to weight gain.

Increased Risk of Cardiovascular Diseases

Processed foods contain trans fat, which can raise “bad” cholesterol and lower “good” cholesterol, increasing your risk of coronary heart disease. This is backed by a 2022 study, which shows that high consumption of ultra-processed foods can increase the risk of cardiovascular, coronary heart, and cerebrovascular diseases by around 10%.

Increase Your Chances of Developing Cancer

High consumption of processed food—more specifically, ultra-processed food—can increase the risk of several cancers, including colorectal, breast, and pancreatic cancer. It can also increase the risk of overall cancers. This could be because of the additives that go into them, which can form cancer-causing compounds.

Increase Your Risk of All-Cause Mortality

The risk of all-cause mortality increased by 60% with higher intakes of processed meat. The same systematic review showed that consuming sugar-sweetened beverages can increase your risk by 7%. The same association was established by a 2019 study, which found that eating more than 4 servings of ultra-processed food led to a 62% relatively increased hazard for all-cause mortality.

And the worst part is, each additional serving of ultra-processed food increased the risk of all-cause mortality by 18%. Think about the impact it can have on your longevity!

Take Home Message

As you can see, not all processed foods are bad. Some retain their original qualities while still being valuable additions to our diets. However, because a lot of them contain high amounts of salt, sugar, and fat, it’s best to proceed with caution.

Try to limit your consumption of processed food, particularly ultra-processed varieties. Choose fresh fruits, good-for-you veggies, and home-cooked meals as much as possible to get all of the good and none of the bad.