Growing, transporting, and preparing food for billions of people is, you might not be surprised, difficult. Every step from seed to plate creates an opportunity for something to go wrong. With a growing population urban centers also become more and more vital and get further and further away from those seeds.
It’s a needle that farmers and food scientists have not always threaded. It’s important to make products available to people outside source areas. However, the preservation methods used sometimes lead to harmful foods.
Some losses in the quality of preserved food are to be expected. Since the dawn of civilizations, techniques for preserving foods have been used and refined. Sadly, modern techniques to increase shelf life have created some unfortunate side effects.
Why are processed foods bad and how bad are they? Read on for an in-depth look at this topic. And if you’re looking for alternatives, we have a complete guide on healthy and colorful eating for your entire family, now available on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble.
Related: Losing Weight: How Ultra-processed Foods Cause Weight Gain
What Are Processed Foods?
Even though many foods undergo some form of processing, not all foods are designated as processed foods. The term ultra-processed food helps mark the distinction between something washed or milled from something altered chemically.
Processed foods in this context have been broken down and reconstituted with additives for shelf-life, texture, and flavor.
The distinction between minimally processed products and ultra-processed sometimes comes with regulations and sometimes not. It doesn’t fall into a ‘know it when you see it’ category nor is it always straightforward.
A gallon of milk that has been pasteurized and homogenized is minimally processed. The first process removes bacteria while the second uses multiple milk draws to arrive at a finished product.
A Kraft single, on the other hand, takes cheddar cheese (created by other minimal processes) and then grinds it up, adds some stabilizers, sugars, and preservatives and then extrudes into a finished product. The finished item bears little to no resemblance to its parts.
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Why Do We Eat So Many Processed Foods?
Breaking down ingredients and then recombining them has a lot of benefits in terms of presentation and transportation. It’s certainly easier to transport a ton of tomatoes after they’ve been heated, crushed, strained, and condensed than whole ones. It’s also easier to hide a few bruises or green spots when the crop arrives in paste form.
Because much more of a product can be created at once, it benefits from the economy of scale. You save money by purchasing in bulk.
Processed foods offer quick, long-term storable, and calorie-dense foods. These features are great for providing a populace with calories. They’re bad for offering complete or even partial nutrition.
More food at a cheaper rate makes it easy to overconsume both in terms of quantity and quality. The many additives used to mask the loss of flavor from the processing tend to decrease quality to the point of creating harm.
This is a major component of the way that processed foods trigger compulsive eating reward loops. Because ultra-processed foods tend to be calorie-dense, you can eat twice as much and still not feel full.
A Canadian cohort study provided statistically significant evidence that these foods increase cancer risk. Not just increase, but increasingly out of proportion to consumption. A 10% increase in processed food consumption created a more than 10% increase in cancer prevalence.
What makes processed foods unhealthy in this way? It’s a combination of the overconsumption and the way that the body recognizes and breaks down particular substances.
If you were around in the late 90s you may remember the Olestra issue. Sometimes things that go into the body pass through without being recognized as food. Other times, things get miscategorized and attacked or stored indefinitely.
Related: Is Your Food Really Organic? How to Tell
Your body needs energy to function. In a worst-case scenario, you will live longer eating junk that’s full of calories over nutrient-rich foods with scant calories.
The longer you go without necessary nutrients, the more long-term damage that’s caused. Take scurvy for example. This go-to reference point highlights what a vitamin deficiency does to a person.
Many of the techniques used to shape these ultra-processed foods remove the nutrients, which tend to be delicate in comparison to the sugars and proteins found in bulk food staples.
Where food variety is low, ultra-processed foods become the dominant intake spiking up to 91% of nutrients consumed in some European countries.
If you’re looking for ways to enrich your diet with healthy foods, but aren’t sure where to begin or what kind of meals to make, Huetrition has you covered. We have HueDieticians at the ready, able to guide you towards simple and fun meals that avoid processed foods.
Easier to Digest
Since the foods have already been broken down and then reconstituted in some form, they tend to go down easy. Your body doesn’t have to put in a lot of work to pull a cookie apart and get at the sugars inside.
It takes a lot more effort to pull apart the fibers in an apple and get to the sugars there. In the meantime, your body also has time to absorb the nutrients therein, that is a comparatively slow process.
Soda and other sugary drinks go in as a liquid. They require less breaking down and result in lots of calories with no nutrient absorption.
Risks of Sodium, Sugar, and Fat
All of the processing and homogenizing of products to make them stable enough to survive long-term tends to destroy both the nutritional content and much of the flavor.
To compensate for this tasteless cardboard, manufacturers add extra sugar, fat, and salt.
Your brain isn’t wired to understand the impact of some flavor concentrations that otherwise shouldn’t exist. This novelty adds to the compulsive eating cycle.
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Why Fewer Processed Foods Are Better
Eating fresher foods offers better nutritional content that takes energy and time to digest. This leaves you healthier and slimmer. Eating minimally processed foods also works with what you are wired for, so your body doesn’t crave the novelty.
There was a need for ultra-processed foods for delivering calories and sustenance to areas in the past. Now, with modern logistics, foods need less processing to be fresh and palatable on arrival.
We’ve got some great tips for how to stock a pantry with staples. With some careful planning, you can avoid many ultra-processed foods.
Generally, working with your body is better than not. Food is meant to be tasted, not buried under sauces and condiments that clog up your body.
It’s one thing to hear that processed foods are harmful foods, it’s another to understand the breakdown of why. Making healthy choices and advocating for better products for yourself and others is worth the effort. Huetrition currently has informative webinars that will help you better understand healthy eating options, wiping processed foods from your diet for good.
To learn more about nutrition and food advocacy, contact us here.