What makes a food healthy?
Full of vitamins?
High in antioxidants?
Today people have different definitions on what constitutes healthy. And while different nutrition plans will feud over certain subtleties, one thing they can agree on is the reduction or elimination of processed foods. But what exactly are processed foods?
According to the International Food Information Council, food processing is “any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat”. So foods that are packaged or frozen are considered “processed food”. That doesn’t mean all processed foods are bad.
In fact, here are four categories of processed foods that were recently reviewed:
#1 Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
These are foods with plant origins.
This would include fruits, nuts, seeds, stems, or leaves). Or they have animal origins (fresh meat, eggs, etc.). When a food is minimally processed they do not gain any new substance, the only change is they may lose parts of the original food. So this could be dried beans, eggs, unsalted nuts, frozen fish, frozen meats, frozen veggies or frozen fruits, How much does the average American consume? 29.6% of their daily calories come from this.
#2: Processed culinary ingredients
These are ingredients that have been extracted from parts of food, purified or gathered from nature. Many of these have been pressed, milled, stabilized, or pulverized. Or they have other agents or additives mixed with them. These could be flours, sugars, plant oils or animal fats. Researchers found the average American eats 2.9% of their daily calories from these.
#3: Processed food products
These are foods that have things like salt, oil or sugar added to them to increase aesthetics and how palatable they are. Examples included foods that are canned or bottled with syrups, salts, oils or sugars or processes such curing, salt-pickling or smoking. So this would be canned fruit (in syrup), cheese, salted nuts, canned veggies, processed meats like bacon or ham. Researchers discovered the average American eats 32.6% of their daily calories from this group.
#4 Ultra-processed products
Okay, best for last. To give this description justice I’m going to use the exact quote researchers used:
“Typically contain little or no whole foods. Durable, convenient, accessible, highly or ultra-palatable, often habit-forming. Typically not recognizable as versions of foods although may imitate the appearance, shape and sensory qualities of foods.”
That’s a little scary to see ‘habit-forming’ as a description for food.
And what’s also shocking here is to see that they don’t even recognize them as food – even though they may look like foods, be shaped like food, and feel like food. Let’s continue:
“Numerically the majority of ingredients are preservatives… Bulk may come from added air or water. Microntrients may ‘fortify’ the products.”
“The majority of ingredients are preservatives” is very reassuring.
It’s also interesting to note here that micronutrients are added to ‘fortify’ the food. Micronutrients are any vitamins or minerals. That doesn’t sound like a bad thing until you dig deeper and find out that some of these vitamins are not being extracted from natural sources. For instance, vitamin B1 (thiamine) can be found in nuts, oranges or eggs. However, this vitamin is often created from coal tar.
So what makes up these Frankenfoods, also known as ultra-processed foods?
Examples include soda, chips, hot dogs, instant soups. Packaged salty snacks, chicken nuggets and cookies, pre-prepared meat and pasta, cakes, pastries, breakfast cereals.
Brace yourself. According to a recent study published in the British Medical Journal Open, the average American consumes 57.9% of their calories from ultra-processed food.
Not surprisingly, 90% of added sugar in the diet is due to ultra-processed foods.
So what does research say about ultra-processed foods?
Rev Up Your Appetite
One small 2019 study published in the journal Cell Metabolism found that when people ate high amounts of ultra-processed food they ate 500 more calories each day. That’s the equivalent of a Big Mac or a large Belgian Waffle. In other words, it caused them to roughly eat an extra meal each day.
By the way, what do the following foods have in common?
What do you think? Each one clocks in at 500 calories. Yes, only four slices of bacon. These are sneaky foods that can add quite a few calories to your day.
Harm Your Heart
A review of over 13,446 adults over the age of 20 looked at the impact ultra-processed foods have on heart health. Over the course of 2011-2016 they found every 5% increase in calories from ultra-processed foods resulted in a decrease in cardiovascular health. And people who ate 70% of their calories from ultra-processed foods cut their chance for ideal heart health by half!
According to nutrition expert Dr. Barbara Davis:
“Not only do people eat more and gain weight, but they don’t meet their nutrient requirements. So, essentially, we have a growing number of overweight and obese people who are malnourished.”
Tend to Contain Deadly Trans Fat
In 2015 the FDA declared that artificial trans fats were harmful to eat and gave food companies three years to get rid of them from their products. They estimate this move may prevent 20,000 heart attacks per year. That’s’ because the body is unable to break trans fat down. So the body ends up building it up in the liver and arteries. Even though trans fats are officially “banned” they still show up in many highly processed foods.
Increased Risk of Early Death
A study by the University of Paris looked at data from over 44,000 adults over the age of 45 over a 7-year period. This study found that on average 30% of the subjects’ daily calories came from ultra-processed foods. However, for every 10% increase in ultra-processed foods, their chance of death increased 14%. This increase held true even when controlling for factors like BMI, smoking, physical activity, alcohol consumption and total calorie intake!
With that being said:
What processed foods are you going to start removing from your diet?