Author Name: StartRight

What is processed food? You are right if you are thinking about cookies, carbonated drinks, snack chips etc. However, you might be surprised to know that most of the foods that we eat in our daily life are also processed food. On the other hand, whole food plant-based diet includes naturally grown fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains and legumes, and excludes refined and processed foods and animal-based products like milk, meat, cheese etc.

The list of processed food starts from minimally processed food and extends to more complex preparations like sweeteners, oils, flavors, spices, colors and preservatives with lots of variations. The following table will help to simplify and understand how the continuum of processed food ranges.

Types of processed foodExample
Minimally processed foodRoasted ground nuts, coffee beans, washed and packaged fruits , vegetables and bagged salads etc.
Foods that are processed to preserve and enhance the nutrients and freshness level.Pureed and jarred baby foods, beans tomatoes, frozen fruits and vegetables, canned tuna etc.
 Foods that are combination of products like sweeteners, oils, flavors, colors, spices and preservatives etc  (Does not include “ready-to-eat” foods)Packaged foods like instant potato mix, rice, cake mix, jarred tomato sauce, spice mixes, dressings and sauces, gelatin etc
“Ready-to-eat foods” that need minimal or no preparationBreakfast cereal, flavored oatmeal, crackers, jams, jellies, yogurt, garlic bread, nut butters, ice cream, granola bars, cookies, fruit chews, rotisserie chicken, luncheon meats, honey-baked ham, cheese spreads, fruit drinks and carbonated beverages etc
 Food packaged to stay fresh and save timeFrozen meals, entrees, pot pies and pizzas, prepared deli foods.

Why processed food is harmful?

  1. Processed foods are high in sugar and fructose corn syrup: Processed foods are full of added sugar or fructose corn syrup. It is evident that excess sugar has harmful effects and can cause various diseases. Serious metabolic ailments like insulin resistance, high triglycerides, high cholesterol, and increase in fat accumulation in the liver and abdominal cavity are associated with high blood sugar levels. Also, sugar consumption is associated with diseases like heart disease, diabetes, obesity and even cancer. Most of the people avoid sugar in their coffee or cereal, but are unaware that they are consuming the hidden sugars present in the processed foods. 1,2,3,4
  2. Processed food leads to over consumption: In the quest of satisfying our test buds, our appetite gravitates towards foods which are fatty, sweet and salty. This food gives us energy and nutrients which is in excess to the normal requirement. In today’s competitive market, the foods have to be desirable if the food manufacturer wants to succeed. So in order to meet the fierce demands of the food industry, processed foods are engineered to be more desirable and rewarding to the brain when compared to the foods that are readily available in nature and are good for human health. It is evident that the reward value of foods can bypass the defense mechanism of the body that stops us from eating excessively and in this process our health is compromised. This is known as the “food reward hypothesis of obesity”. The fact is that processed foods becomes incredibly rewarding to our brains and it affects our thought process and behavior which makes us eat more until eventually we fall sick.5, 6, 7
  3. Processed foods are full of artificial ingredients: Most of the processed or packaged foods have artificial chemicals which are added for various purposes. This includes:
    •    Preservatives: Chemicals which prevents the food from rotting and keeps it fresh for a longer time.
    •    Colorants: Chemicals which are used for coloring the food.
    •    Flavor: Chemicals which are used to induce a particular flavor to the food.
    •    Texturants: Chemicals which gives a particular texture to the food.
  4. Processed food can also be an addiction: The ‘hyper rewarding’ characteristic of processed food can cause addiction and some people tend to lose control over the amount of food consumed. This is the reason why many people cannot resist junk food and processed food even though they try very hard to reduce the consumption. The biochemistry in their brain is hijacked by the intense dopamine release in the brain when they eat processed food. Studies also suggest that sugars and junk foods activate the same brain areas as drugs of abuse like cocaine. 8, 9
  5. Processed foods are high in refined carbohydrates: Processed foods are usually high in refined carbohydrates. Carbohydrates from whole food are always healthier than refined carbohydrates. The refined carbohydrate or “simple” carbs are broken down easily in the digestive tract which leads to rapid increase in the blood sugar and insulin levels of the body. One also tends to get hungry early owing to the early reduction of blood glucose level. Consumption of refined carbohydrate can also lead to various health issues like obesity, diabetes, coronary diseases etc.10, 11
  6. Processed foods are very low in essential nutrients: As compared to plant-based whole food which is unprocessed, processed foods are extremely low in essential nutrients. In few of the processed food, synthetic vitamins and minerals are used to compensate the nutrients that are lost during the processing. This synthetic nutrient has negative effects on health. Whole food contains much more vitamins and minerals than the processed food. The more you consume processed food, the more chances of deficiency of minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and other essential nutrients in the body.
    Processed food also lacks fiber. Fiber is naturally found in plant-based whole foods but is lost during processing. Therefore, lack of fiber can lead to health complications like obesity, increase in blood sugar levels, high cholesterol levels etc. Fiber also increases the growth of the good gut bacteria which prevents gastrointestinal problems.12
  7. Processed foods are high in unhealthy fats: Vegetable oils which are used in processed foods are very unhealthy for human consumption. These fats have excess amounts of omega-6 fatty acids which causes inflammation and cardiovascular complications. Processed foods contain hydrogenated fats which are extremely harmful for the body. They are the unhealthiest substance that can be put in the human body. Trans fats and seed oils should be replaced with coconut oil and olive oil which are healthy.13, 14
    The main objective of having food is to derive the essential nutrients from the food for optimal health and to satisfy our taste buds as well. Whole food plant-based diet meets these objectives as it is tasty, has varied options, healthy for all age groups and also protects our body from various ailments and health related issues and thereby helps us to stay disease-free.

1. Accessed on 10th Nov’17.
2.Heather Basciano et al.Fructose, insulin resistance, and metabolic dyslipidemia. Nutrition & Metabolism20052:5.
3.  Kimber L. Stanhope. Consuming fructose-sweetened, not glucose-sweetened, beverages increases visceral adiposity and lipids and decreases insulin sensitivity in overweight/obese humans. J Clin Invest. 2009 May 1; 119(5): 1322–1334
4. France Bellisle, Marie-Françoise Rolland-Cachera.How sugar-containing drinks might increase adiposity in children.The Lancet, Volume 357, Issue 9255, 17 February 2001, Pages 490-491
5. StephenSeely, David FHorrobin.Diet and breast cancer: The possible connection with sugar consumption. Medical Hypotheses. Volume 11, Issue 3, July 1983, Pages 319-327
6. Kenny PJ.Common cellular and molecular mechanisms in obesity and drug addiction. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2011 Oct 20;12(11):638-51.
7. Volkow ND et al.Food and drug reward: overlapping circuits in human obesity and addiction. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2012;11:1-24
8. Blumenthal, Daniel M. Gold, Mark S.Neurobiology of food addiction. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care: July 2010 – Volume 13 – Issue 4 – p 359–365
9.  Caroline Davis. From Passive Overeating to “Food Addiction”: A Spectrum of Compulsion and Severity. ISRN Obesity
Volume 2013 (2013), Article ID 435027, 20 pages
10.David JA Jenkins et al. Glycemic index: overview of implications in health and disease. Am J Clin Nutr July 2002
vol. 76 no. 1 266S-273S
11. Frank B Hu. Are refined carbohydrates worse than saturated fat?Am J Clin Nutr June 2010
vol. 91 no. 6 1541-1542.
12Russo GL. Dietary n-6 and n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: from biochemistry to clinical implications in cardiovascular prevention. Biochem Pharmacol. 2009 Mar 15;77(6):937-46
13. Parnell JA, Reimer RA. Prebiotic fiber modulation of the gut microbiota improves risk factors for obesity and the metabolic syndrome.Gut Microbes. 2012 Jan-Feb;3(1):29-34
14.A Ascherio , W C Willett.Health effects of trans fatty acids. Am J Clin Nutr October 1997 vol. 66 no. 4 1006S-1010S

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