None of us are strangers to the dangers of consuming highly processed foods. The increased sodium and sugars, decreased nutrients, and presence of trans fats are driving us as far away from healthy eating as we can be. Despite this, research indicates that about 60 percent of calories bought in grocery stores in the United States are from highly-processed foods.1 Of course, we shouldn’t rant about the disadvantages of the processed food industry without acknowledging why we need them in the first place.
The food processing industry benefits us by helping us preserve food, maintain its consistency, meet the increasing demand, and it saves us tons of time. Although these benefits exist, we should be aware of all the consequences of having processed food that the industry doesn’t popularize.
Read the points listed below to get a better understanding of the ways in which highly processed foods can be disadvantageous to an individual’s health.
1. Excess Added Sugar
For starters, sugars found naturally in fruits are termed fructose while those occurring in dairy products are termed lactose. Added sugars are those that are made using processed raw ingredients like corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, molasses, etc.2 These processed sugars are then used to preserve, sweeten, and texturize processed foods that lack nutritive value and fiber content.
What Happens When We Overconsume It? Several studies have reported that the overconsumption of high fructose added sugars used in processed foods lead people towards blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.3
What Do We Do? Apart from the risks that processed foods with added sugar pose, overconsumption of sugar from any source may still lead to similar negative effects. It is therefore essential to stay within the recommended guideline. According to the World Health Organization, consumers must ensure that sugars contribute to less the 10% of their total energy or calorie intake.4 Consumers are also encouraged to consume sugar from natural sources like fruits as they have the nutrients and fiber content which processed foods lack.
2. Large Amounts Of Saturated And Trans Fats
Saturated fats are fats that are typically solid at room temperature. Examples of foods that contain saturated fats include butter, cheese, lard, pork, beef fat, etc.5 In the U.S. diet, saturated fats are commonly consumed while eating dishes like burgers, sandwiches, and tacos; pizza; rice, pasta, etc.6
What Are Trans Fats? Artificial trans fats or trans fatty acids are manufactured by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. They are used to give processed foods a highly desirable taste and texture and also helps them last longer. Foods that may have high amounts of trans fats include desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, margarine, and coffee creamers.7
What Happens When We Overconsume These Fats? Overconsumption of these fats is linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, increased cholesterol, and obesity.8
What Do We Do? It is advised that consumers try and switch to food sources rich in healthy fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Consume foods rich in saturated fats in limited quantities with reduced frequency. Foods with good fats include
- Sunflower seeds
- Flax seeds or flax oil
- Fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, albacore tuna, and trout
- Peanut oil and butter
- Olive oil
- Sesame oil
- Soybean oil
- Safflower oil
3. Increased Levels Of Sodium
Salt or sodium chloride is used in processed foods to enhance taste, to increase shelf-life, and to get a more desired texture. Studies show that about 95 percent men and 75 percent women exceed the recommended upper limit of sodium intake.9
What Happens When We Overconsume It? High sodium intake increases blood pressure and may ultimately affect heart health. Increased sodium intake also causes the body to retain fluids.
What Do We Do? The current average sodium intake is 3,440 mg per day. This should be reduced to less than 2,300 mg per day for adults and children ages 14 years and older. For Adults with prehypertension and hypertension further reduction to 1,500 mg per day is advised.10 So, make sure to read through labels to find out how much salt or sodium is present in processed foods and make it a point to avoid or limit salty foods like pickles, chips, and saltines.
4. Fewer Nutrients And Added Chemicals
The processing industry is notorious for using a variety of chemicals to preserve, add flavor, texture, and color. They also don’t have to specify the chemical ingredients that went into making these “preservatives”, “artificial flavors”, and “colorants”. Yes, they have to be certified by the FDA before production but keep in mind that in several cases, FDA approved additives were later found to be harmful.11 Watch out for potassium bromate which may be used in baked goods. Despite being classified as a potential carcinogen, the FDA has still ignored all petitions to stop using it. Several other chemicals like monochloroacetic acid (used as a preservative), cyclamates (a class of artificial sweeteners), and diethyl pyrocarbonate (fermentation inhibitor and preservative) were found to be harmful to health and were banned only after several years of circulation.12
What Happens When We Overconsume It? The high calorie and reduced nutritional value that many highly processed foods contain could cause health issues like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol with prolonged consumption. Overconsumption of these foods without maintaining a balance with healthy natural foods can pose a large risk to an individuals health. And an excess of chemicals in food could lead to a plethora of diseases and health conditions ranging from hormone imbalances to cancer.
What Do We Do? It may not be possible to stop eating processed foods altogether but it is possible to increase consumption of whole foods. You can also read through the nutritive content on the labels of processed foods and eat within your recommended limits. If you find that any information concerning nutritional data is lacking or insufficient, report it immediately.
|↑1||Highly processed foods dominate U. S. grocery purchases. ScienceDaily.|
|↑2, ↑6, ↑7, ↑10||US Department of Health and Human Services. “2015–2020 dietary guidelines for Americans.” Washington (DC): USDA (2015).|
|↑3||Stanhope, Kimber L., Jean-Marc Schwarz, and Peter J. Havel. “Adverse metabolic effects of dietary fructose: Results from recent epidemiological, clinical, and mechanistic studies.” Current opinion in lipidology 24, no. 3 (2013): 198.|
|↑4||WHO calls on countries to reduce sugars intake among adults and children. The World Health Organization.|
|↑5||Saturated Fats. American Heart Association.|
|↑8||Trans Fat. American Heart Association.|
|↑9||Doyle, Marjorie Ellin, and Kathleen A. Glass. “Sodium reduction and its effect on food safety, food quality, and human health.” Comprehensive reviews in food science and food safety 9, no. 1 (2010): 44-56.|
|↑11||The FDA Approves Harmful Food Additives. The Alliance For Natural Health.|
|↑12||The FDA and food companies have been wrong before: they have assured us of the safety of products that were not safe. U.S. RIGHT TO KNOW.|