Take a closer look at many households around the world and one thing stands out: processed foods seem to be the order of the day! Despite their prominence, numerous studies, however, indicate that these ingredients are unhealthy. Which begs the question: is it time that we abandon processed foods for healthier alternatives instead?
Processed foods have been around for quite some time, and what is surprising is that many of us are not well informed about what they are, where they came from, or even what impact they have on our bodies. Having said that, here is everything you need to know about processed foods:
What are Processed Foods?
By definition, processed foods officially refer to any food which has gone through some form of change before being rendered ready to consume. The list can range from products which have been frozen for extended periods, processed meats, and even otherwise unhealthy processed foods such as nuggets or chips. All these products have been extensively transformed to achieve a particular appearance, texture, or taste.
BMJ Open, an American medical journal, did a study on Western diet composition and what is perhaps the most alarming discovery is not even about how much processed foods we consume, but rather how frequently we are consuming them. Another study in the same journal found that over half of the average daily energy intake of Americans startlingly comes from ultra-processed foods such as sodas and cakes.
What’s more, according to the same study 90% of ‘added sugar intake’ by Americans is also from ultra-foods. 21% of the calories in ultra-processed foods come from sugar, although this number scales down to around 2.4 % when it comes to regular processed foods.
These foods contain ‘hidden sugars’ that are normally disguised as ‘artificial sweeteners,’ and it is these components that lead to various health conditions among them type 2 diabetes, obesity, and even migraines.
What is the Difference Between Processed, Ultra-Processed, and Unprocessed Foods?
The impact of processed food on your overall health depends on the type of processed foods you consume. Essentially, processed foods are not manufactured equally.
Ultra-processed foods refer to foods which have gone through significant processing usually comprising of many ingredients, most of which are not commonly found in a kitchen setting. These foods include many of the products encompassed under ‘bad processed foods,’ a category that includes convenience store foods, frozen meals, cookies, sodas, and chips among many others.
Alternatively, processed foods may be comprised of pre-packaged ingredients like bread, pasta sauce, and salad dressings.
As for unprocessed foods, these are unaltered ingredients usually in a natural state. Veggies, fresh fruit, seeds, and wild-caught fish are among several examples of non-processed foods.
Common Processed Foods You Should Avoid
Here are several processed foods you should avoid to help your efforts of maintaining a healthy body:
Refined vegetable oils
Convenience store or fast food meals
Store-bought cakes, pastries, and cookies
Do Processed Foods have any Side Effects?
Unhealthy processed foods usually boast a low nutrient composition and supply excess fat, calories, sodium, and sugar to the body without providing the necessary nutrients the body needs for healthy growth such as minerals, vitamins, and even antioxidants. Increased consumption of these foods can usually increase your risk of nutritional deficiency and weight gains potentially resulting in conditions such as osteopenia and anemia among others.
The presence of added sugar means that frequent intake of these foods can encourage poor eating habits like overeating and food addiction.
Certain processed food types like processed meats are closely linked to chronic ailments among other adverse health effects. In fact, consuming processed meats on a regular basis can increase the risk of diabetes, coronary heart disease, as well as various cancers including stomach cancer and colorectal.
Other possible side effects of processed foods include constipation, bloating, low energy levels, acne, high cholesterol levels, inflammation, cavities, depression, high blood pressure, and chronic pain among others.
Processed Foods vs. Healthy Foods: What is the Difference?
The simplest method of differentiating between healthy and processed foods is checking a product’s ingredient label.
Usually, unprocessed foods will only have several listed ingredients, all that are healthy seasonings and spices, and whole foods that are easily found in a kitchen. Alternatively, foods that are heavily processed will usually feature numerous ingredients that include preservatives, food additives, and synthetic dyes among others.
Note: The best way to avoid processed foods is to only go for products comprising ingredients not exceeding five. Although not always practical, this method can help you identify minimally processed products.
What’s more, be sure to avoid refined grains like pasta, rice, and white bread, instead, choose whole-grain options. Likewise, refrain from processed meats such as cold cuts, bacon, and salami and choose healthier alternatives such as wild-caught fish, and grass-fed beef instead.
The presence of artificial sweeteners or added sugars is also a significant indicator of processed foods. Take note that numerous processed foods also comprise of added sugars disguised as healthy foods, not to mention sweeteners that boast ‘natural’ names like barley malt and agave nectar.
Steps to Help You QUIT Consuming Processed Foods
Start with gradual changes.
Although making drastic changes is a somewhat tempting move, you are more likely to adapt to new habits by taking the process one step at a time and seeing it through. Gradual changes will not only assist you in easing into the changes mentally, but they will also ensure that you minimize the occurrence of any unpleasant physical symptoms as a result.
Create a grocery list when going shopping.
The road to adopting healthier eating habits is relatively easier if you write down what you plan to buy. Also, to help you avoid the temptation of eating processed foods, go shopping on a full stomach.
Limit your shopping isles.
Limit the varieties of aisles you shop and focus on only visiting those that feature healthier foods such as the produce section. This way, you can avoid the temptation of purchasing unhealthy processed foods.
Read the list of ingredients.
As earlier mentioned, you can start by only sticking to products with less than five ingredients. Moreover, if the ingredient list contains a component that you would not usually use in your home, it is best avoided.
Watch out for any ‘added sugars.’
Manufacturers list various sugars with cunning terms in their ingredients, which makes it important that you be on the look-out. Most sugars end with ‘ose’ such as fructose and dextrose. What’s more, they also use names that have a ‘natural’ connotation such as beet sugar, fruit juice, and cane sugar.
Healthier Processed Food Alternatives
Juices and Sodas:
You can replace these products with homemade drinks that not only have a great taste but are also healthy. Examples of such include carrot juice or options form a wide variety of unsweetened tea.
Feel free to experiment with homemade chips. You can usually swap out potatoes and use other vegetables and fruits. Try making zucchini chips or spicy kale chips.
Rather than stocking your freezer with a stash, you can alternatively use a simple dough like cauliflower pizza crust, coconut crust pizza and then pack on your preferred toppings.
Frosting and Cakes:
There are several delicious and healthy recipes you can consume in place of frosting and cakes which can be made using a few components that are found on minimally processed foods. Some of the common alternatives you can switch to include: yogurt parfait, chocolate dipped bananas, or even homemade almond or peanut butter among many other gluten-free recipes available online.
History of Processed Foods:
While many of us believe that processed foods are a recent phenomenon, these products surprisingly date as far back as the prehistoric period. In fact, various common fermentation methods such as drying, curing, and smoking have been in use for many years to extend shelf-life and enhance the flavor of foods.
Technological developments further enhanced food processing during the 19th and 20th centuries as is evidenced from the invention of various techniques such as tinning, pasteurization, and canning, methods that were invented to extend the time food lasts as well as kill any festering bacteria.
The demand for highly efficient and durable food products in the wake of the 20th century further ensured that more practices and methods of preservation developed, among them evaporation and dry freezing which subsequently led to the production of various food products such as noodles, instant soups as well as convenience meals.
Fast track to today and there is a wide array of processed foods which have unfortunately found their way in the Western diet. These products range from cookies, crackers, and fast food. Various studies have also outlined an alarming statistic that a typical American diet comprises up to 58% ultra-processed ingredients.
Numerous studies associate diets that have a high content of processed foods with multiple health problems that range from weight gain to chronic illnesses. Nonetheless, processed foods vary in composition. Although its recommended to follow a plant-based diet filled with fruits and veggies, you can include some moderately processed foods with moderation. Some processed foods that can be included in a healthy diet include:
Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables
Natural nut butters
Various whole grain products