If you have ever read any health recommendations, followed any cleanse or diet, or sought advice on what not to eat, then you’ve come across processed foods. They are always one of the top food groups to avoid, and always on the “no-no” list of any diet or cleansing program. But what are processed foods? And why are they so bad that I must always avoid them?
What makes a food processed?
Processed foods are any food that has been processed. Yes, that seems obvious, but what does processed entail? Processed foods are those that have undergone alterations that diminish their nutrient quality. Most often this involves a food being ground down or highly heated to the point where their beneficial nutritive parts are stripped away. Examples include brown rice becoming refined into white rice, wheat flour being refined into white flour, sea salt becoming white table salt or brown sugar becoming refined white sugar.
Another way in which foods become processed foods is when chemical additives, preservatives, non-food ingredients or refined fats, starches and flours are added. The easiest way to detect these is by looking at the nutrition label. Processed foods have lists of ingredients that you have never heard of, or ingredients that are far from being derived from a whole plant or food. For example, the most popular boxed stuffing mix contains the ingredients, high fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed soy protein, BHA, BHT, propyl gallate, and partially hydrogenated soybean oil. What in the world are these foods? Can you imagine what they look like when they come out of the ground? Could you grow these? Can you even say what whole food they came from? And better yet, what place do they have in a stuffing mix that should just be breadcrumbs, herbs, some veggies and butter? These are the questions that arise when you are looking at a very processed food.
Finally, procesed foods also have added sugar, processed fats (like trans fats) and table salt. Adding these ingredients become necessary since the main food ingredients are so processed that they lose their natural flavors. I mean, they have to get you to eat them somehow, right?
Why are processed foods so bad for you?
The reason why processed foods have been named time and time again as being one of the worst health offenders is because they are not real foods. They are loaded with chemical additives and preservatives, refined sugar and salt, have been processed to the point where they offer virtually no vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and contain processed ingredients that cause harm to the body. So what are these processed ingredients, and what harm can they really do to health?
Trans fatty acids aka hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil or fat
Found in: peanut butter, margarines, pastries, frozen foods, cakes, cookies, crackers, soups, fast food items and nondairy creamers
The harm: increases risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome
High fructose corn syrup and all corn syrup variations
Found in: candy bars, salad dressing, soda, sweetened beverages, pastries, baked goods, condiments such as BBQ sauce and ketchup, cereal and bread
The harm: increases risk of obesity and diabetes
Artificial colors (such as yellow #5 and yellow #6, blue #1 and blue #2)
Found in: beverages, candies, ice cream, cereal, pudding, bread mix, beverages, chips, cookies, and condiments
The harm: Several studies have linked both dyes to learning and concentration disorders like ADD in children. May also cause allergic-type reactions like hives in a small portion of the population. There are also piles of animal studies demonstrating potential risks such as kidney and intestinal tumors. Both blue dyes have been loosely linked to cancers in animal studies, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends avoiding them—and we agree.
BHT and BHA preservatives
Found in: Beer, crackers, cereals, butter, and foods with added fats
The harm: Studies have shown them to cause cancer in the forestomachs of rats, mice, and hamsters. The Department of Health and Human Services classifies the preservative as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.
Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite
Found in: bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and cured, canned, and packaged meats.
The harm: Under certain conditions, sodium nitrite and nitrate react with amino acids to form cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
Found in: chilis, soups, chips and foods with chicken or beef flavoring, Chinese fast food
The harm: Studies have shown that MSG injected into mice causes brain-cell damage, but the FDA believes these results are not typical for humans. The FDA receives dozens of reaction complaints each year for nausea, headaches, chest pains, and weakness. MSG has also been shown to make food taste more appetizing, which increases the desire to continue noshing. To make matters worse, it also blocks the “I’m full” hormone from communicating with the brain and tells your body to pump out insulin, the fat-storage hormone—not good news for those looking to melt their love handles.
Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein
Found in: Canned soups and chili, frozen dinners, beef- and chicken-flavored products, beef jerkey and meat sticks like Slim Jim
The harm: hydrolyzed vegetable protein can form MSG in the body leading to the same issues listed above.
Found in: sausages, lunch and other processed meats, hams and canned fish
The harm: increased risk for heart disease, chronic kidney disease, weak bones, and premature death.
Cornstarch, corn flour, hydrolyzed soybean flour, modified food starch
Found in: cereals, baking mixes, pastries, baked goods, premade pizza and pie crusts, chips, cookies, cereal bars, breakfast foods, boxed pasta like Mac N Cheese
The harm: these foods are derived from the genetically modified crops of corn and soy. GMO foods have been linked to fertility issues, kidney and liver damage and cancer.
Found in: gum, diet soda such as diet coke, diet drinks and diet foods including chips, ice cream, candy, pastries, cookies and treats
The harm: the FDA has received thousands of consumer complaints due mostly to neurological symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, memory loss, and, in rare cases, epileptic seizures. Many studies have shown aspartame to be completely harmless while others indicate that the additive might be responsible for a range of cancers.
How do I Avoid Processed Foods?
While the main lesson here is that processed foods are bad for your health, you are going to have to do some investigating in order to avoid them. Here are some main steps to take to ensure that you start eliminating processed foods from your life.
- Read Labels: turn over that box or packaged food and read the label. If you notice anything that you cannot identify as coming out of the ground, garden or being raised on a farm, avoid it.
- Avoid Middle Aisles: the middle aisles are where all the shelf stable food lives. That means the foods here often contain preservatives and additives to keep them from spoiling. While there can be healthy food items here such as grains and beans, for the most part the middle aisle contain some pretty harmful processed foods so do your best to avoid them. If you do venture in, be sure to read all labels before putting the food into your cart.
- Be Wary of Frozen Meals: just like the packaged foods found in the middle aisles like the dinner in the box, frozen meals are also a place where processed foods live. Always read the labels of frozen meals before purchasing because chances are most of them are bad for you. I also made a list of my favorite healthy frozen meals here so check that out for safe purchases.
- Prepare Food at Home: while you have not much control over the food that you buy at restaurants or to-go stores, you do have complete control over the food that you purchase and prepare at home. Many restaurants use these harmful ingredients to make their food, especially when eating at fast food restaurants, restaurant chains, bakeries, donut and ice cream shops. Start getting into the practice of making food at home instead. If do you eat out, ensure that it is at a high-quality, health-conscious restuarant or shop that lists their food ingredients, and makes their own dressings and baked goods.
- Make your own Baked Goods: I know, I am not a baker either, but it seems that many of the most harmful ingredients lie in baked goods or instant baked goods packages. This includes the “add an egg, oil and water” brownie, pancake, cookie and cake mixes, as well as the premade pie and quiche crusts. The same goes for frostings. Avoid at all costs and make your own.
So what are some processed foods to look out for?
Ingredients: Unbleached enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thuamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), sugar, soybean oil, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, whey, eggs, natural and artificial flavor, salt, leavening (baking soda, calcium phosphate), emulsifiers (mono-and diglycerides, soy lecithin).
Prepared Pie Crusts
Ingredients: Enriched Flour Bleached (wheat flour, niacin, ferrous sulfate, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), Partially Hydrogenated Lard with BHA and BHT to Protect Flavor, Wheat Starch, Water. Contains 2% or less of: Salt, Rice Flour, Xanthan Gum, Potassium Sorbate and Sodium Propionate (preservatives), Citric Acid, Yellow 5, Red 40.
Meals in a Box
Ingredients: water, cooked white meat chicken, cooked enriched long grain rice (water, rice, iron, niacin, thiamin mononitrate, folic acid), skim milk, mushrooms, peas, marsala wine, 2% or less of parmesan and asiago cheese blend with flavor (parmesan & asiago cheeses [cultured milk, salt, enzymes], enzyme modified parmesan cheese [cultured milk, water, salt, enzymes], whey, salt), modified food starch, butter (cream, salt), onions, chicken broth, soybean oil, brown sugar, garlic, maltodextrin, salt, sea salt, spices, potassium chloride, isolated soy protein, sodium phosphates, seasoning (dried chicken broth, chicken powder, natural flavor), caramel color, dried onions, carrageenan, mushroom extract, pectin, flavors, xanthan gum, lactic acid, autolyzed yeast extract, dextrose, calcium lactate, chicken fat, dried chicken broth, gum acacia, sodium lactate, sesame oil, canola lecithin, citric acid, potassium phosphate, sodium citrate.
Deli Meats, Bacon, Sausage and Hot Dogs
Ingredients: Cured With: Water, And 2% Or Less: Salt, Dextrose, Sodium Phosphate, Sodium Propionate, Sodium Erythorbate, Sodium Nitrite, Caramel Color.
Bread, Bagels, Muffins, and Rolls
Ingredients: Unbleached Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Yeast, Whole Wheat Flour, Rye Flour, Wheat Bran, Wheat Gluten, Molasses, Contains 2% or Less of Each of the Following: Salt, Butter* (Made from Milk), Soybean Oil, Cultured Wheat Flour, Vinegar, Honey, Dough Conditioners (Contains One or More of the Following: Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Calcium Stearoyl Lactylate, Monoglycerides, Mono- and Diglycerides, Distilled Monoglycerides, Calcium Peroxide, Calcium Iodate, DATEM, Ethoxylated Mono- and Diglycerides, Azodicarbonamide, Enzymes, Ascorbic Acid), Monocalcium Phosphate, Wheat Starch, Soy Lecithin, Soy Flour, Calcium Carbonate, Ammonium Sulfate, Calcium Sulfate.
Ingredients: Milk chocolate (sugar, cocoa butter, skim milk, chocolate, lactose, milkfat, soy lecithin, artificial flavor), corn syrup, sugar, hydrogenated palm kernal oil and/or palm oil, skim milk, less than 2% milkfat, cocoa powder processed with alkali, malted barley, lactose, salt, egg white, chocolate, artificial flavor.
Ingredients: Skim Milk, Sugar, Fudge Swirl (Corn Syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Water, Sugar, Cocoa, Tapioca Starch, Natural Flavor, Salt, Lactic Acid, Potassium Sorbate), Corn Syrup, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups [Milk Chocolate (Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Chocolate, Nonfat Milk, Milk Fat, Corn Syrup Solids, Soy Lecithin, Pgpr [Emulsifier]), Peanut, Sugar, Dextrose, Salt, Tbhq (Preservative), Cream, Peanut, Maltodextrin, Dextrose, Peanut Oil, Caramel Color, Propylene Glycol Monoesters, Cellulose Gel, Cellulose Gum, Mono and Diglycerides, Salt, Carob Bean Gum, Guar Gum, Carrageenan, Vitamin A Palmitate.
Ingredients: Unbleached Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate Vitamin B1, Riboflavin Vitamin B2, Folic Acid), Soybean Oil, Sugar, Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil, Salt, Leavening (Baking Soda and/or Calcium Phosphate), High Fructose Corn Syrup, Soy Lecithin, Malted Barley Flour, Natural Flavor.
Ingredients: corn, vegetable oil (sunflower, canola and/or corn oil), corn maltodextrin, salt, cheddar cheese (milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes), whey, monosodium glutamate, buttermilk, romano cheese (part skim cow’s milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), whey protein concentrate, onion powder, corn flour, natural and artificial flavor, dextrose, tomato powder, lactose, spices, artificial color, yellow 6, yellow 5, red 40, lactic acid, citric acid, sugar, garlic powder, skim milk, red bell pepper powder, green bell pepper powder, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate.
Cakes, cupcakes, donuts and brownies
Ingredients: Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Shortening (Soybean, Cottonseed), Sugar, Unbleached Enriched Wheat Flour (Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Reduced Iron, Niacin, Thiamin Mononitrate (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Folic Acid), Water, Cocoa (Processed With Alkali), Nonfat Milk, Soy Flour, Egg Yolks, Leavening (Baking Soda, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate), Natural & Artificial Flavors, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Dextrose, Pregelatinized Wheat Starch, Corn Syrup, Salt, Soy Lecithin, Sorbitan Monostearate, Polysorbate 60, Mono- And Diglycerides, Potassium Sorbate (Preservative), Cellulose Gum, Guar Gum, Tapioca Dextrin, Xanthan Gum, Karaya Gum, Beta Carotene (Color), Caramel Color.
Ingredients: Tomato concentrate from ripe red tomatoes, distilled vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, salt, spice, onion powder, natural flavoring.
Ingredients: Roasted Peanuts And Sugar, Contains 2% Or Less Of: Molasses, Fully Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils (Rapeseed And Soybean), Mono And Diglycerides, Salt.
Some Good News
There is some good news here, and that is that there are some packaged food items that are in fact healthy. You just have to be diligent in reading labels in order to find them. I know that I cannot always make my own food, nor can I always make flour, nut butter, salad dressings, and other convenience foods from scratch. That is why we are lucky enough to have some packaged and prepared foods available to us that do no contain those nasty ingredients. ust remember, these are the exception, not the rule.