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!

How bad are processed foods? - Burger and chips on board

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:

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed: e.g. unprocessed: eggs, fruit, minimally processed: frozen vegetables.
  2. Processed culinary ingredients: sugar, oil, natural foods that are processed by methods including milling, drying and pressing to make them suitable for use.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

How bad are processed foods? - Unprocessed v ultra-processed food, crisps, chips, potatoes

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.

How bad are processed foods? - Person measuring waist

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.

  1. Fast food
  2. Processed meat
  3. Frozen pizza
  4. Ready made meals
  5. Candy bars
  6. Sweetened breakfast cereals
  7. White bread
  8. Sugary soda drinks
  9. Crisps
  10. Packaged soup

How bad are processed foods? - Glass bowl with crisps and pringles

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).

As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

The same applies for sugar-sweetened beverages, such as Green Tea Pure Extract 50% Caffeine Powder or Green Coffee Bean Extract.

How bad are processed foods? - Cookies stacked on table

Summary

  • 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.

Sources

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.

Categories: Blogs

14 Comments

  • Lemuel Sacop · 04/04/2020 at 2:36 PM

    Hello and good day! I find it very concise, informative, and interesting. I also like that you included the studies as your source.

      Sharon · 04/04/2020 at 9:10 PM

      Hello there,

      Thank you very much, these are some of the goals of each of my posts, so I’m glad it read that way for you. Please feel free to ask any questions if you have any.

      Sharon

    Bob · 04/04/2020 at 2:57 PM

    Excellent post Sharon. This is so on point. I’ve been living a low carb Keto lifestyle for the past 2 years and a big part of the success that I’ve seen if due to cutting out processed foods, sugars, starches etc. Trying to eat as many whole foods as possible and it has helped. Besides the weight loss, my overall health has improved greatly. Keep preaching… everyone needs to know this!

    Bob

    Mick · 04/04/2020 at 3:22 PM

    Hey Sharon, I really liked this post and how it was written.

    Processed food is pretty awful and should be avoided at all costs, but we always seem to fall into the trap. Is it that the alternative choice, the good one is limited or is it many of us just can’t be bothered?

    You can check all the labels and you will pretty much find sugar the main ingredient which is a major cause for concern.

    You have to ask the question, are these ingredients there to keep us coming back for more?

    Addiction, and we see it in many things.

    Fresh is always best and it really doesn’t take much of an effort to cook that perfect meal, does it?

    Great post and thank you for sharing.

    Mick

      Sharon · 04/04/2020 at 9:23 PM

      Hi Mick,

      That’s very kind, thank you!

      It’s often a mix of both, processed foods are very addictive and often more flavoursome than the less-processed alternative. Additionally, if you take a browse around your supermarket in search of unprocessed foods, it can be rather restrictive.

      Yes I agree to an extent. However, I also believe that, at least personally, with time constraints it can be difficult to dedicate time to cooking meals from scratch without the aid of some processed foods. Bear in mind that not all processed foods are bad, if they’re involved minimal processing, e.g. frozen veg, sometimes they can be healthier than the fresh version!

      Thanks for your comments and insight!

      Sharon

    Andy · 05/04/2020 at 3:29 PM

    Hi Sharon and thanks for this. Like many people I don’t need convincing about the dangers of processed and particularly ultra processed foods – and thanks for the clear explanation btw it is good to gain an understanding that this isn’t a binary situation but a gradual scale of badness as it were. What would be really helpful though is for all of those ten worse ultra processed foods if you could suggest some close or direct and healthier substitutes. As I say I don’t need convincing – I just need help changing bad habits. Thanks much again. I enjoy your site and find it has much useful information. Cheers Andy

      Sharon · 05/04/2020 at 4:15 PM

      Hi Andy,

      Good to hear you’re in the right frame of mind already! Yes, I think many people believe it’s either black or white in terms of processed foods being healthy.

      I think you’ve just read my mind because I’m hoping for one of my next posts to include something like that, so stay tuned and you may be pleasantly surprised. If you’ve any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

      Thanks,
      Sharon

    Kathy · 05/04/2020 at 4:47 PM

    Thank you for sharing this information:) While I eat a healthy vegetarian diet and cook most meals from scratch, I do indulge in a few chocolate biscuits each day, and confess to eating the occasional white bread roll. I’m sure obesity could be greatly reduced if people swapped unhealthy take aways, and frozen pizzas for decent home cooked meals:)

      Sharon · 05/04/2020 at 7:27 PM

      Hi Kathy,

      Wow, well done on cooking meals from scratch, it certainly takes commitment and time to do that! I’m sure a few treats every now and then are no harm once in moderation. I’m sure it would, if people were more aware of the nutritional value of such foods, it could motivate them to eat less of them.

      Best wishes,
      Sharon

    Tracy · 06/04/2020 at 12:17 AM

    Great article. While adding healthy foods into my diet hasn’t been difficult, getting rid of the nasty ones can sure be hard on a girl! : )

    Sugary stuff is the worst for me. I love to cook, and I garden, so I’ve got the healthy stuff down. But getting rid of the sweets has been a challenge. At least I do my own baking, and don’t by M&Ms anymore!

    Thanks for the information and inspiration.

      Sharon · 06/04/2020 at 5:49 PM

      Hi Tracy,

      Yes they’re certainly more addictive, what’s the saying – once you pop, you can’t stop! It can definitely be difficult, but having a healthy substitute can help ease the cravings. E.g. I swapped crisps with popcorn and jam with sauteed berries.

      It’s all about finding something to satisfy the craving! Great to hear you keep the M&Ms out of the house though, that’s a move in the right direction.

      Sharon

    Jeff · 06/04/2020 at 1:02 PM

    You have written an awesome post to help people realize how bad processed foods are, and I am proof living with autoimmune disease all my life how processed foods have contributed to my poor health and damage to my body over the years.

    Please eat processed foods in moderation and natural healthy foods to be your main diet, you will be surprised how much more energy you have just by changing your diet

    90% of natural food sources to 10% of processed foods is a good healthy diet to follow

    Jeff

      Sharon · 06/04/2020 at 6:04 PM

      Thank you Jeff!

      That’s an excellent ratio to live by, you can certainly spot the people who eat processed foods, particularly meats as I hear they’re not the best for certain autoimmune diseases, e.g. arthritis and inflammation.

      Thanks for your insight into the connection between autoimmune diseases and processed foods, it’s good to have someone directly affected put it into perspective!

      Best wishes,
      Sharon

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