website builder

Processed Foods

Let’s take a closer look at the differences between unprocessed and processed foods. My goal is not to scare you into never eating processed food again. But if you have an interest in personal health and the world around you, I hope to provide some insight into why whole foods are often the optimal choice.

Processed Foods

By: Jeremy Partl, RD

Previously I have written about the perils of the Western diet and guided readers toward the foundations of healthier eating patterns. In brief, the westernized diet is characterized by a high content of proteins derived from domesticated and processed fatty meats, saturated fats, refined grains, sugar, alcohol, salt, and corn-derived fructose syrup, with an associated reduced consumption of fruits and vegetables.[1] In other words, this dietary pattern contains high amounts of processed foods with smaller proportions of whole foods.

In this article, let’s take a closer look at the differences between unprocessed and processed foods—mainly with regards to physical health, but also other considerations you may not think of. My goal is not to scare you into never eating processed food again. But if you have an interest in personal health and the world around you, I hope to provide some insight into why whole foods are often the optimal choice.

Ultra-Processed Foods Are the Real Problem

In today’s society, nearly all of our foods are processed in some manner. It could be the butchering and packaging of the sirloin that comes off the cow, the roasting of almonds, or even turning whole grains into pasta. Ancient processes such as drying, non-alcoholic fermentation, chilling and freezing, pasteurization, and vacuum-packing have been enhanced with novel food science and technology.[2]

Thus, it would likely be inaccurate to say that food processing itself is the issue with our food supply. More than anything, it is likely the ultra-processing and heavy reliance on these foods that have contributed to changes in the health of the world population. For instance, most people would argue that the addition of sugar to many of our beverages and the addition of partially hydrogenated oils to things like nut butters are the more harmful actions.

Even though we use slang terms such as fast, convenience, or junk food, these terms aren’t clearly defined and can skew the perception of these foods.[3] Researchers and public health officials have created a distinction with processed foods in a simple way that alleviates some confusion:[4],[5]

Unprocessed Food—Edible parts of plants or animals, fungi, algae, that are unaltered.

Processed Food—Products made by adding salt, oil, sugar, or other preservation methods such as canning and bottling.

Ultra-Processed Food (UPF)—Formulations of ingredients made by industrial processes and the inclusion of ingredients that offer no or rare culinary use (i.e., corn syrup, hydrogenated oils) and are usually packed in synthetic materials.

A can of green beans that has salt added to it would be defined as processed food. If you were to attempt to eliminate all processed foods, you would be left with very little to eat. When the harmful effects of processed foods are discussed, we are more accurately referring to ultra-processed foods (although you can still say that even regular processed foods could be less optimal choices in some cases).

The Impact of Ultra-Processed Foods

What foods come to mind when I mention ultra-processed foods? The answers may be different for everyone but would likely include things like snack cakes, chips, deli meats, sugary beverages, etc.

These foods:[6]

  1. Could potentially increase overall energy intake as they are typically higher in calories, salt, sugar, and fat.[7]
  2. May cause overeating through properties that increase the culinary appeal and palatability of the food.[8]
  3. Could reinforce greater food consumption through changes in gut-brain signaling.[9]
  4. May be associated with greater potential for promoting chronic inflammation.[10]

For example, one of the most intriguing studies from the last couple of years showed that individuals consuming an ultra-processed diet consumed an average of 500 additional calories per day (primarily from carbs and fats) and gained nearly two lb. over the course of two weeks (whereas the unprocessed diet resulted in weight loss—by nearly the same amount).[11] This was a highly controlled experiment where subjects were instructed to consume as much or as little as desired of meals that were designed to be matched for presented calories, energy density, macronutrients, sugar, sodium, and fiber.

As a result, ultra-processed foods have been associated with:[12],[13]

  • Higher rates of obesity in children and adults
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases
  • Strong direct associations to cancer (with the exemption of prostate and colorectal cancers)
  • Higher rates of depression
  • Increased risk of gastrointestinal disorders
  • Physical problems like muscle weakness, low physical activity, and slow walking speed

Unsurprisingly, all of this has been shown to increase the risk of early mortality. I’m partially concerned about living longer but also about living a high-quality life. What’s the point of living if you are not thriving?

Furthermore, ultra-processed foods actually have a larger impact on our society as well.

Socio-Economic

Without getting too far into politics, government subsidies promote mass overproduction of staple crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans—resulting in the price being drastically reduced, with estimates suggesting that the prices come in 40-60% below the cost of some developing countries.[14]

This not only influences dietary guidelines but also encourages food scientists to find ways to utilize the surplus in creative ways. Why not find a way to turn corn into sugar? Furthermore, this creates a massive economic advantage for large developed countries over the smaller local developing economies.[15]

As a result of this shifting landscape, there have been a large number of changes that have negatively impacted global food systems. For example:[16]

  • Culinary traditions and traditional foods are being replaced by industrialized and standardized products marketed by intense advertising campaigns.
  • Having meals together with family and friends has reduced because UPFs tend to be ready-to-consume, isolating individuals from each other.
  • Local companies and small businesses are harmed by consumers favoring imported UPFs over local foods and products.
  • Small farmers may partially or completely substitute growing local and traditional foods for crops used to make UPFs.

Environmental

When it comes to the sustainability of global food systems, many debates question the elimination of animal products, purchasing only local products, etc. However, many people don’t consider the impact of UPFs on the environment and sustainability. Consider some of the findings surrounding the impact of UPFs on the environment, biodiversity, and animal wellbeing.[17],[18]

  • Greenhouse emissions and energy demands are greatly increased because UPFs involve more steps to create the finished product, such as packaging and longer transportation routes.
  • Intensive livestock production processes like concentrated animal feeding organizations have been more mainstream and favored to meet the high demands for low-cost products, often leading to animal suffering and abuse.
  • To keep the prices low, employees of farms growing the highest demand, cheapest crops are subject to low wages, dangerous work environments, and poor quality working conditions.
  • UPFs use more non-biodegradable materials like plastic that can fill landfills up and can leach chemicals into the food and ground.

When Processed Foods Can Still Cause Issues

To an extent, processed foods usually have less drastic impacts on our health and the global food systems. However, there can be some potential issues with processed foods that I find interesting.

While processed foods retain the basic identity and most constituents of the unprocessed food, they can become nutritionally unbalanced when excessive oil, sugar, or salt are added. As a result, this can increase the amount of energy, macronutrients, or micronutrients in a product. For example, except for canned vegetables, many processed products have higher energy density ranges from moderate (around 150-250 calories per 100 grams) to high (around 300-400 calories per 100 grams).[19] Even something as simple as peaches can be drastically more energy-dense when they are canned in a sweet syrup.

Additionally, there are actually differences in the number of calories that your body absorbs when it comes to something like whole nuts versus nut butters. Research has “found that walnuts have 21% fewer calories than previously thought, while almonds have 20% less than what the label says, and pistachios have 5% less.”[20] The process of making nut butters breaks down the cell walls to a greater extent than chewing, releasing more fats and increasing the amount of energy we get from the food. In addition, even just the process of chewing whole nuts can make us feel fuller (and thus reduce subsequent food intake).[21] “This is because we don’t break the nut down fully before we swallow it. And this means we absorb fewer calories – and nutrients – than are available in whole nuts.”[22]

Furthermore, processed and packaged foods that come with a Nutrition Facts label are not always factual. Guidelines allow a pretty wide margin of error—up to 20 percent—for the stated value versus the actual value of nutrients (this goes for calories and all other nutrients). Since most people tend to understand calories, that means a 100-calorie pack of nuts could theoretically contain up to 120 calories. A margin of even just 5-10% can easily add up and impact your pursuit of health and body composition goals. The ingredient food itself can also throw off nutrient calculations due to a variety of factors such as resistant starches/fibers, soil and growing conditions, ripeness at time of harvest, animals’ diets, length of storage, preparation method, etc.[23]

While our bodies are not machines, sticking with unprocessed foods will likely result in lower energy intakes and higher intakes of micronutrients over time.

Wrapping Up

It seems quite elementary and repetitive to consistently recommend that people eat primarily unprocessed foods when it comes to optimizing their health, yet it is staggering to find data from national surveys showing that ultra-processed foods comprise about 60% of total calories in the US diet.[24]

I don’t think processed foods are the villain. I understand that they have a role in our food system and are actually very important in making sure that we all have access to enough nutrition. No, you don’t have to eat only whole foods for the rest of your life. Nor will you get obese, become metabolically unhealthy, or die an early death if you eat a processed food.

In some situations, if finances are a primary concern, eating processed foods over eating nothing at all is, of course, the better option.

If you have the privilege of being able to afford more wholesome foods, I urge you to do so—for your health and for the wellness of the world around you. Have your favorite fun foods in moderation, but make sure that your diet is built upon a solid foundation of healthy eating patterns.


Notes

[1] Statovci, D., Aguilera, M., MacSharry, J., & Melgar, S. (2017). The impact of western diet and nutrients on the microbiota and immune response at mucosal interfaces. Frontiers in immunology, 8, 838.

[2] Monteiro, C. A., Cannon, G., Lawrence, M., Costa Louzada, M. D., & Pereira Machado, P. (2019). Ultra-processed foods, diet quality, and health using the NOVA classification system. Rome: FAO, 48.

[3] Monteiro, C. A. (2009). Nutrition and health. The issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing. Public health nutrition, 12(5), 729-731.

[4]https://knightscholar.geneseo.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1106&context=sustainability-curriculum-student

[5] Monteiro, C. A., Cannon, G., Lawrence, M., Costa Louzada, M. D., & Pereira Machado, P. (2019). Ultra-processed foods, diet quality, and health using the NOVA classification system. Rome: FAO, 48.

[6] Hall, K. D., Ayuketah, A., Brychta, R., Cai, H., Cassimatis, T., Chen, K. Y., … & Zhou, M. (2019). Ultra-processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain: an inpatient randomized controlled trial of ad libitum food intake. Cell metabolism, 30(1), 67-77.

[7] Poti, J. M., Mendez, M. A., Ng, S. W., & Popkin, B. M. (2015). Is the degree of food processing and convenience linked with the nutritional quality of foods purchased by US households?. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 101(6), 1251-1262.

[8] Schulte, E. M., Smeal, J. K., & Gearhardt, A. N. (2017). Foods are differentially associated with subjective effect report questions of abuse liability. PLoS One, 12(8), e0184220.

[9] Small, D. M., & DiFeliceantonio, A. G. (2019). Processed foods and food reward. Science, 363(6425), 346-347.

[10] Silva, C. A., Santos, I. D. S., Shivappa, N., Hebert, J. R., Crivellenti, L. C., & Sartorelli, D. S. (2019). The role of food processing in the inflammatory potential of diet during pregnancy. Revista de saude publica, 53.

[11] Hall, K. D., Ayuketah, A., Brychta, R., Cai, H., Cassimatis, T., Chen, K. Y., … & Zhou, M. (2019). Ultra-processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain: an inpatient randomized controlled trial of ad libitum food intake. Cell metabolism, 30(1), 67-77.

[12]https://knightscholar.geneseo.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1106&context=sustainability-curriculum-student

[13] Monteiro, C. A., Cannon, G., Lawrence, M., Costa Louzada, M. D., & Pereira Machado, P. (2019). Ultra-processed foods, diet quality, and health using the NOVA classification system. Rome: FAO, 48.

[14] https://knightscholar.geneseo.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1106&context=sustainability-curriculum-student

[15] Ralston, K. (1999). How government policies and regulations can affect dietary choices. America’s Eating Habits: Changes and Consequences. Agriculture Information Bull, 750, 331-70.

[16] Fardet, A., & Rock, E. (2020). Ultra-processed foods and food system sustainability: What are the links?. Sustainability, 12(15), 6280.

[17]https://knightscholar.geneseo.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1106&context=sustainability-curriculum-student

[18] Fardet, A., & Rock, E. (2020). Ultra-processed foods and food system sustainability: What are the links?. Sustainability, 12(15), 6280.

[19] Monteiro, C. A., Cannon, G., Lawrence, M., Costa Louzada, M. D., & Pereira Machado, P. (2019). Ultra-processed foods, diet quality, and health using the NOVA classification system. Rome: FAO, 48.

[20] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210225-are-nut-butters-bad-for-your-health

[21] McArthur, B. M., Considine, R. V., & Mattes, R. D. (2018). Mastication of nuts under realistic eating conditions: implications for energy balance. Nutrients, 10(6), 710.

[22] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210225-are-nut-butters-bad-for-your-health

[23] https://www.precisionnutrition.com/food-labels-part-3

[24]https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/processedfoods/#:~:text=An%20ultra%2Dprocessed%20food%20that,%2C%20dia

betes%2C%20and%20heart%20disease.

SPECIAL OFFERS

OTHER NEWS

0 Comments

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

 

twitter2 twitter2 instagram2 facebook2

 

©2021 Barbell Logic | All rights reserved. | Privacy Policy | Terms & Conditions | Powered by Tension Group

Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?