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.
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).
These foods are easy to recognise - they're nearly always in a package.
Foods are usually processed to make them safer, keep longer, or more convenient. The main aims of processing food are:
The natural fats in many whole foods go rancid within a few days, so removing them and replacing them with cheap, stable (but unhealthy) trans fats can extend shelf life by months.
This is great for storage, but not for health.
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.
A few examples are:
• Potato chips – potatoes are peeled, sliced thinly, deep fried, then seasoned.
• French fries – potatoes are peeled, cut, blanched, sugar augmented, dried, partially fried, frozen and packaged. Later, they are deep fried or baked again by the consumer. There are some reports that the partial cooking process is linked to higher risk of cancer.
• White bread – whole wheat grain is de-husked, milled and bleached to make flour, then mixed with other ingredients, including sugar, salt and 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.
While some type of food treatment 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).
The more 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).
The worst thing about processed foods is that they increase the risk of serious, chronic disease.
Disease statistics tell the story.
‘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.
Processed foods often contain food additives to help improve the flavour or texture. But some of these additives are 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.
That’s just ONE of the many artificial preservatives found in food.
Sulphites deplete the body of vitamin B1 which is essential for a healthy heart, circulation, nervous system, digestive system…..and much more.
The use of additives in food is regulated by Government Food Standards agencies.
Governments legislate the use of food additives and processing 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.
Reducing intake of manufactured foods is the first step in making healthier food choices. Here are some tips to reduce your intake of processed foods:
• Most processed foods are in packages - so avoid packaged foods and look for fresh food alternatives
• Read food labels to discover the processed ingredients. Generally, these are ingredients with more than two words in the name e.g. glucose from wheat, high fructose corn syrup.
• Look for alternative foods without 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. Or buy from your local farmer's market.
• Minimise processed meats (ham, bacon, salami 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.
(4) Queensland Health Fact Sheet 5: The Facts About Food Irradiation Food Irradiation