Could the negative effects of processed foods be threatening your health or even your life? If I asked you to explain what a processed food is or list bad processed foods, would you be able? You may be wondering are some of the worst processed foods to eat sitting in your food press right now! So, how bad are processed foods? Are you risking your health?
Almost half of the food in our trolleys are ultra-processed; some of the examples of ultra processed foods may downright shock you, so read on to discover the top ten worst processed foods, what food processing is and the difference between processed and ultra-processed food. For anyone on a weight loss food plan, healthy eating regime or just looking to get healthy, this post is without a doubt worth reading. It could save your health, mood and life!
What is processed food?
Many of us have a vague comprehension of processed foods, particularly the bad processed foods. But in reality, the majority of us don’t know what constitutes food processing. What’s more, less knowledge exists surrounding ultra-processed foods, which is concerning, particularly when approximately half of the food we place in our trolleys is ultra-processed food.
Processed food is food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed nutritionally by fortifying, preserving or preparing the food in various ways.
In fact, whenever we cook, bake or prepare food, we are altering the food composition and thus, processing the food. However, that’s not necessarily an unhealthy act, nobody really wants to eat uncooked pasta!
In contrast to processed foods are ultra-processed foods, also known as highly-processed foods. These foods take it one step further than processed foods and include processes such as:
- Addition of ingredients, e.g. modified starch, hydrogenated fat
- Addition of additives, e.g. colourings, preservatives, bulking agents
- Industrial formulation by processes including hydrogenation, moulding, extrusion
Processed foods sit on a spectrum in terms of how healthy they are; the NOVA classification system is recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and uses 4 categories to determine the degree of processing that foods undergo:
- Unprocessed or minimally processed: e.g. unprocessed: eggs, fruit, minimally processed: frozen vegetables.
- Processed culinary ingredients: sugar, oil, natural foods that are processed by methods including milling, drying and pressing to make them suitable for use.
- Processed foods: typically contain 2-3 ingredients. They include the addition of salt, sugar, oil or substances from group 1 and 2 to make foods such as bread, cheese and canned fish.
- Ultra-processed foods: Industrial formulations comprised of substances derived from foods and additives, e.g. microwaveable dinners, soda drinks and processed meat.
So if you’re wondering is processed food healthy, then the above list may put things into perspective. Ideally, opting for the less-processed foods is the optimal approach; as for the more processed foods, the best approach to follow is the the one advocated by the old saying, everything in moderation.
Is processed food bad for you?
Believe it or not, there are processed foods that are healthy and can form part of a healthy diet. This primarily includes minimally processed foods. However, in terms of processed foods, there’s no denying the negative effects of processed foods, as previously discussed in some of the older posts on this page.
A study investigating the association between ultra-processed foods and all-cause mortality was conducted with 19,899 participants aged between 20-91 years. Data on food and drink consumption was collated biennially during 1999 and 2014. The study results demonstrated that a high consumption of >4 servings per day of highly-processed foods was independently associated with a 62% rise in the risk of all-cause mortality. Subsequent additional consumption of highly-processed foods instigated an extra 18% rise in all-cause mortality.
The dangers of processed meat have been widely disclosed in terms of strong links with consumption and increased rates of cancer. The presence of additives, such as sodium nitrite and titanium dioxide, elevate the risk of cancer in consumers of cured meats, with serial offenders including bacon and sausages. In addition to cancer, a meta analysis study has also observed an incremental risk of developing type 2 diabetes, stroke and coronary heart disease from red meat and processed meat consumption.
This meta analysis also observed links between sugar-sweetened drinks and elevated risks of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and strokes. Additionally, high fat dairy products and fried foods demonstrated associations towards colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes.
The consequences of unhealthy eating habits are evidenced in a small study which compared the effects of eating an unprocessed v ultra-processed diet on calorie consumption and weight gain. 20 overweight adults were presented with 3 meals every day along with unprocessed and ultra-processed snacks, depending on the study phase they were in.
The study observed that people on the ultra-processed diet consumed an average 500 extra calories in comparison to the unprocessed diet. It’s no wonder the healthiest foods to eat for weight loss and people on a lean muscle-building diet are often home-cooked meals with minimally processed ingredients.
A study of 104,980 participants over a period of 2009 – 2017 was conducted to assess the degree of association between cancer and ultra-processed foods. The study involved collecting a list of daily foods consumed and categorising them in terms of the NOVA classification. The research concluded that a 10% increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods corresponded to a greater than 10% increase in risk of overall and breast cancer in participants.
Top 10 processed foods to avoid
The below is a list of ultra processed foods, which are all excellent contenders for the top 10 worst foods to eat. In terms of the below-type edibles, you should endeavour to eliminate processed foods from your diet where possible.
- Fast food
- Processed meat
- Frozen pizza
- Ready made meals
- Candy bars
- Sweetened breakfast cereals
- White bread
- Sugary soda drinks
- Packaged soup
Processed and ultra-processed foods are renowned for being addictive, so if you experience difficulty cutting these foods out, then could mindful eating revolutionise your life will certainly provide some solid advice.
There’s no denying it would be admirable for people to adopt an unprocessed food diet. However, to advise people to completely obliterate processed foods would generally be unreasonable and impractical. As such, the above list of processed foods to avoid is certainly a starting point to developing a healthy relationship with food. Even to reduce binge eating junk food, limiting consumption and adopting meal portion control of such foods would be a step in the right direction.
Fortunately, alternatives exist to sugary soda drinks; water flavour enhancers such as Twinings Cold In’Fuse which comes in a range of flavours, or Robinsons SQUASH’D which has no sugar and no calories; these are great ways of cutting out added sugar (I love the summer fruits flavour).
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- Processed food is essentially food that has been altered from its original form
- The NOVA classification system grades foods in terms of degree of processing they undergo
- Processed and ultra-processed foods involve the most degree of alteration and post the greatest risks to health
- Diets high in processed and ultra-processed foods can result in increase calorie consumption and weight gain
- Links exist between processed food consumption and elevated risk of developing cancer, type 2 diabetes and strokes
The above information may shock you into action to improve your diet and eliminate some heavily processed foods. You should have all the ammunition you need to make these changes now. But remember, if you want to keep it sustainable, it shouldn’t be too rigorous. Everything in moderation is almost always the best approach. Additionally, if you’re ever unsure or you plan to make drastic diet or lifestyle changes, you should run it by your dietitian or doctor first.
Did you find any of the above top 10 foods in your kitchen? Would you or could you sustain an unprocessed food diet or would the limited foods and craving hinder that? Do you experience adverse effects after consuming processed foods? Comment down below with your thoughts and questions.
Fiolet, T. et al., 2018. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort. BMJ, p.k322.
Garone, S., 2018. 11 Ultra-Processed Foods To Avoid And 22 Healthier Swaps You Can Make. [online] Healthline. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/ultra-processed-foods#6 [Accessed 4 April 2020].
Katherine D. McManus, L., 2020. What Are Ultra-Processed Foods And Are They Bad For Our Health? – Harvard Health Blog. [online] Harvard Health Blog. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-are-ultra-processed-foods-and-are-they-bad-for-our-health-2020010918605 [Accessed 4 April 2020].
World.openfoodfacts.org. 2020. Nova Groups For Food Processing. [online] Available at: https://world.openfoodfacts.org/nova [Accessed 4 April 2020].
Rico-Campà, A. et al., 2019. Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all cause mortality: SUN prospective cohort study. BMJ, p.l1949.
Schulze, M. et al., 2018. Food based dietary patterns and chronic disease prevention. BMJ, p.k2396.