Are all processed foods bad for you?

“Processed food” has become a big bad word in the world of healthy eaters and fitness enthusiasts. Whether we look for nutrition advice on television, social media, or conversations with friends and family, we often hear the term “processed” becoming synonymous with unhealthy. However, with this continuous and overwhelming amount of available information, it can be challenging to separate the facts from opinions.

This may leave you wondering how processed foods affect our health.

How can we make better choices?

And are all processed foods bad for you?

Here’s MSF clearing out the misconceptions and explaining all that you need to know about processed foods.

What are Processed Foods?

Processed food is any food that has been altered or changed in some way from its natural state during preparation. This alteration or food processing can be as basic as cooking, freezing, canning, baking, drying, etc.

Most foods are processed. Whether it is a bag of chips, or the fresh fruits and vegetables available in supermarkets, they are all processed. However, what is of significance is the level of food processing. One can view processed foods on a spectrum of different degrees of processing.

  • Minimally processed: These include foods that we may think of as whole foods but are prepped/treated to prevent spoilage and inconvenience. Examples include washed, bagged, or cut fruits and vegetables, shelled and packaged nuts.
  • Food processed to preserve nutrition: Foods that are processed at their peak to preserve their nutritional value. Examples include canned tomatoes, canned, tuna, frozen vegetables, etc.
  • Food processed to change texture or flavor: Foods that are prepared and preserved with additives for optimizing the texture and flavour. Examples include salad dressings, yogurt, tomato ketchup, cake mixes, etc.
  • Ready-to-eat foods: Foods that are further processed to be consumed as is. Examples include cookies, cereals, bakery products, crackers, potato chips, etc.
  • Ultra-processed foods: Heavily processed foods that tend to be high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, trans fats and often contain artificial ingredients such as colorants, fake flavourings, preservatives. They mostly include pre-made meals like frozen pizzas and microwaveable dinners. 

Are processed foods bad for you?

The term “processed” is a broad term and not all processed foods are bad for you.

Food processing mainly started as a safety measure to prevent food-borne illnesses and keep food fresher for longer. Various foods benefit from the processing such as milk and dairy products that have been pasteurized to kill bacteria and homogenized to keep the fats from separating. Since not all people have access to fresh and organic food products, these may help in the safety from bacteria and potentially deadly illnesses, if one chooses to consume them.

Processed foods that are chemically processed often contain refined ingredients and artificial substances such as added colors, sweeteners, and flavouring agents. They tend to taste good and are often inexpensive. However, the additional ingredients such as added sugar, salt, and saturated fats, when consumed in excess can be harmful. Highly processed foods also contain less dietary fiber and scarcely any vitamins than whole foods.

Excess intake of sodium can lead to high blood pressure, excess consumption of processed meats has been linked to cancer, and increased intake of sugar is linked with obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Studies suggest that eating 10% more ultra-processed food was associated with an above 10% increase in the risks of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disorders. This conclusion was reached after accounting for sodium, sugar, saturated fat, and fiber intake. Other research indicates that consuming highly processed foods causes a person to consume more calories and use fewer calories in digestion as compared to whole foods, which can lead to unintentional weight gain.

How do I make food choices that are both healthy and more practical?

Processed foods are convenient and give us access to foods that may otherwise perish in transit. However, the key to consuming processed foods is using common sense and enjoying them in moderation.

  • Limit the intake of heavily processed or ultra-processed foods.
  • Stick with whole and minimally processed food to get adequate nutrition. Try to buy more fresh produce.
  • Learn to read the labels and check for ingredients you want to avoid before you start shopping. Opt for foods with less added sugars, lower sodium, fewer saturated fats, and chemical additives.

If you’re struggling to eat healthily and achieve a nutrient-rich diet, try out our MSF Transformation Plans and get completely customized meal plans as per your budget, lifestyle, dietary preferences, limitations, and fitness goals.