Processed Food Facts

Eating too much processed food often leads to obesity, cancer and diabetes.

So how do you start eliminating these foods and making healthy food choices?

Keep reading to learn find out what's involved in processing - what it means, why we do it, what the health and dangers are, and some top tips for avoiding it.

Bread roll - processed wheat product

How do you define processed foods?

They are foods that have been:

• Heated (e.g. processed canned and dried food)

• Milled (e.g. white flour)

• Pressure treated (e.g. milk)

• Irradiated (e.g. herbs, spices, herbal infusions)

• Contain food additives (e.g. noodles, dairy products, cooking sauces).

Processed foods are easy to recognise - they're nearly always in a package.

Why do we process foods?

Foods are usually processed to make them safer, keep longer, or more convenient.

Processing can kill harmful bacteria or other microorganisms. This is very important for food that travels long distances or sits in supermarkets for long periods – it needs to be preserved in order to be safe to eat.

Processing can extend shelf life.

For example, the natural fats in many whole foods go rancid within a few days, so removing them and replacing them with cheap, stable trans fats can extend shelf life by months.

Convenience is a major driver for food processing.

Foods like bread, buns, ready-made packaged meals and dried noodles are seen as ‘quick and easy’. But then again, so is an apple!

Artificial additives are often also used to extend the shelf life of food products.

orange and juice

A few examples of processed foods are:

• Potato chips – potatoes are peeled, sliced thinly, deep fried, then seasoned.

• White bread – whole wheat grain, milled, bleached, mixed with preservatives to prevent mould, then baked.

• Orange juice – whole oranges are peeled, juiced, strained, then cold stored. Some juices are made from concentrates/reconstituted juice. Concentrate is a juice with some water (and vitamins) removed by pasteurization and evaporation under vacuum and heat. Reconstituted juice means water is added to this concentrate. Sometimes, additives are included.

• Crackers – these often have trans fats added to increase their shelf life. Trans fats are created when vegetable oils are overheated and the molecular structure of the fat changes. Trans fats are linked to serious diseases like heart disease and cancer.

Processing - swapping good for bad?

While processing is important for food safety and food storage, important nutrients and vitamins are lost in each processing step. On average, processing usually removes 50 – 80% of nutrients from a food (1).

And the more processing steps involved, the more nutrients are lost. For example, over 60% of vitamins are lost in the extraction of flour from wheat (1, 2).

Processing can also affect taste and properties of the food. Food manufacturers may then add cheap or artificial sugars, salts, fats or additives to:

• improve or restore the flavour or properties of the food

• disguise the taste of low quality ingredients that have been added to improve texture, shelf life or appearance

• improve the shelf life of the food

In other words, processing usually means removing nutrients, swapping good nutrients for bad, increasing calorie content, and removing other valuable things like fibre (2).

Are processed foods a health risk?

The main health risks of processed foods are well known - they are evident in worldwide disease statistics.

‘First world’ countries that consume lots of processed foods like breads, cereals, sugary foods and fatty foods, are stricken with diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

What else could you expect if a large portion of your diet was based on foods loaded with poor quality calories like sugars and fats, and contain significantly less fibre, vitamins and minerals?

When you think of it that way, it’s easy to see that processed foods are causing obesity.

Yet only 100 years ago, the leading causes of death were infectious diseases – we ate a lot more whole foods back then, with much higher nutritional value. And obesity wasn’t a problem.

The dangers of processed food

Processed foods often contain food additives, some of which can be harmful or even life-threatening. Harm can come from simply eating the additive, or, by eating a certain amount on a regular basis.

An example is the preservatives known as sulphites - numbers 220 to 228 on food labels. Sulphites are linked symptoms like headaches and irritable bowel syndrome, skin rashes and behavioural problems, and asthma.

The asthma link came to light in the 1970’s and 80’s with the well publicized salad bar deaths where hundreds of people suffered severe asthmatic reactions and at least 12 people died, after eating restaurant salads that were sprayed with sulphites (3).

Suphites were used originally to preserve wine but are now found in a range of foods including meats, dairy products, candied fruits, French fries/hot chips, dried fruits, dried vegetables, pickles, gherkins and chutneys.

It’s hard to control your intake of something when it’s found in so many foods! Asthmatics need to be especially vigilant in avoiding some types of processed foods.

Sulphites also deplete the body of vitamin B1 which is essential for a healthy heart, circulation, nervous system, digestive system…..and much more.

That’s just ONE of the many artificial preservatives found in food.

Trans fats are another additive caused by heat and pressure treatment of vegetable oils. The result is a type of fat presents more of a health risk than saturated fat.

What’s the government doing about all this?

The use of additives in food is regulated by Government Food Standards agencies.

Governments legislate the use of food additives and processed foods to make sure that health and safety are maintained. Here are some examples:

• In the USA, the use of sulphites on fruit and vegetables that are intended to be eaten raw has been banned (3)

• The US government has legislated for trans fats to be restricted to less than 1% of a food (e.g. less than 1g trans fat per 100g of food)

• In Australia, food irradiation is prohibited except for certain types of fruits, herbs and spices, as specified according to the Food Standards Code (4)

• Food Standards laws dictate that additives have to be listed on food labels. However, some foods are exempt from this law, and where quantities are very low, additives may not have to be listed

There can be loopholes in the law! Visit your country’s Food Standards website for more information.

Tips for avoiding or eliminating processed foods

Eliminating processed foods is the first step in making healthy food choices. If you want to start avoiding processed foods, here are some tips:

• Anything in a package is usually processed. Avoid packaged foods as much as possible, and look for fresh food alternatives

• Unhealthy ingredients in processed foods are easily spotted on food labels.


You can then look for alternative products that don’t contain additives

• Look in the pantry and see how many processed items you’re actually eating. You can gradually stop buying products with lots of artificial additives or unhealthy additives (like sugars, fats and salt), and replace them with healthier alternatives

• Buy whole grain flours and breads instead of white

• Buy whole fresh fruit or frozen fruit instead of canned fruit

• Enjoy higher nutritional values of vegetables by starting your own vegetable garden and picking in-season vegetables as you need them.

• Minimise processed meats (ham, bacon etc) and replace with freshly roasted lean meats

• Buy and cook dried legumes more often, and rely less on pasta and noodles which are more processed

• Replace margarine or spread with organic preservative-free butter, tahini, avocado or home made hommus.

Change is easily made in small steps. The best approach is always to find out what needs to change, then to start taking small achievable steps – one thing at a time.

(1) Worlds Healthiest Foods Worlds Healthiest Foods
(2) White, M (2010). Whole Foods for Health. Healthkick Website
(3) Fed Up with Food Additives Fed Up with Food Additives
(4) Queensland Health Fact Sheet 5: The Facts About Food Irradiation Food Irradiation

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