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Are all processed foods bad for you?

Many people around the world are aware of the term “processed food” and some are even trying to avoid it, because of what they have heard/read in the social media. A common conception is that all processed foods should be avoided, but why? And what is actually a processed food?

At the bottom of the article, there is a link to a recipe that will help you to escape from the ultra-processed foods trap, so keep reading:)

Types of processed foods

Not all processed foods are bad for one’s health. According to the International Food Information Council (2010), “Food processing is any deliberate change in food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat“. Thus, freezing and drying to maintain freshness is considered “processing” as well as chemically altering a meal to ensure convenience. For instance, even homemade bread is thought to be a processed food due to the baking process.

Actually, anything that is not pulled out from the soil directly is processed, which includes frozen veggies or fruits (Link 2019).

Therefore, several types of processed foods have been differentiated in order to clarify the difference between all of them (International Food Information Council Foundation 2010):

  • Minimally processed [packaged fruits ad veggies; roasted nuts and coffee beans]
  • Foods processed for preservation of freshness [canned goods; frozen fruits and veggies]
  • Combination of ingredients to improve taste and visual appeal [instant mixes, jarred sauces, dressings]
  • Ready-to-eat” meals requiring minimum preparation [flavoured oats, cereals, crackers, cookies, processed meats, spreads, carbonated drinks]
  • Packaged foods (Highly-processed/ultra-processed) [prepared meals, pizzas, frozen ready-meals]

The ultra-processed foods need to be taken into consideration when choosing a meal due to their health consequences. Summarizing Steele et al. (2016), these foods are “industrial formulations which, besides salt, sugar, oils ad fats, include substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations. It is proven that most of the population’s daily consumption is from ultra-processed foods which all have “hidden” added sugars (Link 2019). Sugar as well as artificial sweeteners lead to many health issues such as type 2 diabetes, obesity or cardiovascular disease.

Side effects

Being high-calorie and at the same time low-nutritious is the main downside of processed foods. There contain more than the recommended amount of saturated fat, sugar and sodium without any micronutrients (keep one’s body in a healthy state). Thus, there is a risk of obesity and nutritional deficiencies that sooner or later will cause conditions such as Iron Deficiency Anaemia.

Fiolet et al. (2018) conducted a cohort study looking for any correlation between ultra-processed foods and cancer. They concluded that there is 10% greater risk of (breast) cancer in people consuming 10% more processed foods.

Moreover, colorectal or stomach cancer as well as coronary heart disease may be a consequence of increased processed meats consumption due to the many preservatives and additives in their ingredient list (Link 2019).

Examples of Processed Foods worth avoiding:

  • Ham, bacon, salami
  • Ready meals
  • Carbonated and sweetened drinks
  • Chips, cookies, pastries, candy bars
  • instant foods
  • Flavoured yogurt or oats
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Refined vegetable oils or grains
  • Breakfast cereals

How to choose food then?

Firstly, one should learn how to read the nutritional label in order to determine if the food product is a healthy option and if it is worth buying. The ingredient list of minimally processed or unprocessed foods has very few ingredients such as whole foods, spices, seasoning. However, foods that need to be avoided contain many preservatives, food additives, artificial sweeteners, sugar, synthetic dyes, etc. (Things that sound more like you are in a chemistry lab rather than a supermarket/kitchen). Moreover, when I say “sugar”, I mean all of the sugar varieties considered “healthier option” such as sweeteners like cane sugar, corn or rice syrup, fructose, maltose, agave nectar.

How to make a change?

I know that it is hard to alter the way you’ve been shopping and eating, but you’d better make changes now and feel great in the long-term rather than make changes BECAUSE you feel your health is getting worse.

To start with, take little steps every day. This would help with actually sticking to the new lifestyle. For instance, try to shop with a grocery list and stay away from the “junk food” aisles. Then, start with reading the ingredients list and avoid packaged foods that contain more than 5/6 things.

Besides, if you stick to the rule of eating whole foods such as fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts and minimally processed meats- you’ll be good. 😉

Nonetheless, don’t stress over it that much. While it is preferable to choose mostly nonprocessed foods like fruits, veggies, healthy meats, some minimally processed food products will not harm your body that much when consumed in moderation. For instance, canned or frozen fruits and veggies, wholegrains, yogurt, olive oil, pasteurized milk (Link 2019).

Get rid of the sauces in jars and start making your own: Zucchini Noodles with Homemade pesto sauce

“A homemade pesto sauce recipe might be one of those things that would surprise you by being super delicious and in the same time nutritious.
Besides, there is always a satisfactory element when you make something on your own that tastes and looks good.”

References:

INTERNATIONAL FOOD INFORMATION COUNCIL FOUNDATION, 2010. What is a Processed Food? You might be surprised! [online]. Washington, DC: International Food Information Council Foundation. Available from: https://foodinsight.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/IFIC_Handout_processed_foods.pdf [Accessed 8 January 2020].

STEELE, M. et al., 2016. Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. BMJ Open, 6(3), pp. 1-8.

LINK, R., 2019. Processed Foods Dominate the American Diet- Healthy Swaps to the Rescue! [online]. United States: Dr. Axe. Available from: https://draxe.com/nutrition/processed-foods/ [Accessed 9 January 2020].

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