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Killing Us With Convenience: Processed Food Conundrum

By Janette Daher
Posted On Feb 19, 2021
Killing Us With Convenience:  Processed Food Conundrum

You just got off work after a long, stressful day.  You stop at the store to pick up a few things to help get through the next couple of days- frozen pizza, corn flakes, milk, bananas, deli meat, jar of spaghetti sauce, energy bars, bagged salad, and microwave popcorn.  Would you be surprised to learn that eight of the nine items in your cart are processed foods?   Processed foods were originally designed to make life easier and convenient, and they do that, but in most cases this convenience comes with a cost….and it is the effect they can have on your health.

In fact, ultra-processed foods compose over 60% of the Standard American Diet and account for almost 90% of our added sugar intake.  High sugar intake increases the risk of many health conditions including obesity, type 2 diabetes, high triglyceride and cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, cancer, and dental issues.   To add insult to injury, foods with high sugar content are usually empty calories, meaning they have little to no nutritional value or fiber.

Processed Foods Defined

That being said, not all processed foods are bad.  By definition, a processed food refers to any food that had been changed from its original form- this includes freezing, canning, cooking, packaging, or changing food composition by preserving or fortifying with vitamins or minerals.  Basically, anytime we prepare a meal, we process food.

Scientists have developed a food classification based on the extent and purpose of food processing to help distinguish the level of processing and nutrient value of foods.  Unprocessed foods are foods that we get directly from the source of a plant of animal and have not been altered.  The bananas in our shopping cart example above is an example of an unprocessed food.

Minimally processed foods are natural foods that are cleaned and prepared for convenience or preserved for storage.  The bagged salad and the milk in our cart are examples of minimally processed foods.  For the most part, unprocessed and minimally processed foods are the heroes in the food processing categories as they pose no harmful additives, and the convenience tends to make us better consumers of fresh fruits and vegetables as a result of their convenient preparation.

Processed foods are those that are manufactured using added ingredients like salt, sugar, oil, vinegar, etc. to preserve or to add texture or flavor to the food.  The jar of spaghetti sauce in our shopping cart is an example of a processed food.  Processed foods are sometimes high in sugar and sodium (salt) and should be used in moderation.

Ultra-processed foods involve many steps and ingredients in their preparation with the goal of creating something that tastes good and is ready to eat or drink with little to no effort.  The problem lies in that these products are high in salt, sugar, trans fat, preservatives, and additives all of which are not good for you.  Additionally, the more processing a food undergoes, the less nutrient value it retains.  Examples of ultra-processed foods in our cart include the cereal, deli meat, frozen pizza, energy bars, and microwave popcorn.  In order to stay healthy, you should use ultra-processed foods sparingly in your diet.

So how do we avoid ultra-processed foods?  It’s difficult because they are convenient, tend to be low cost, and let’s face it…most of them taste good.  An easy way to avoid ultra-processed foods is to stay out of the center aisles of the grocery store- this is where the ultra-processed foods live.  They’re usually canned, boxed, or frozen.  Focus on the perimeter of the store-this is where the fresh, whole foods are located.  Learning to read labels will also help you decide if you are looking at an ultra-processed food.  Chances are if there is a long list of ingredients or if there are ingredient you cannot pronounce or do not sound like food on the label, you are looking at an item that is ultra-processed and probably not the best choice.  Listed below some ultra-processed foods and why you should avoid them.

Based on the evidence, it is clear that you are what you eat.  The incorporation of processed foods in your diet should be considered carefully.  Minimally processed foods are convenient and much healthier alternative.  Avoid ultra-processed foods as much as possible and use other processed foods in moderation.  Your body will thank you!

Top 10 Ultra-Processed Foods to Avoid

Hot dogs- full of preservatives and nitrates, hot dogs are actually classified by the World Health Organization as carcinogens, meaning they have links to cancer.

Granola/Energy bars- while granola bars do have some healthy ingredients, they tend to be full of added sugar, which cancels out the healthy ingredients.

Microwave popcorn- microwave popcorn contains lots of sodium and saturated fat.  Plus the bag the food is popped in contains harmful chemicals like perfluoroalkyls which have been linked to several health conditions.

Fruit roll-ups- popular among children, these snacks rarely contain any fruit and are mostly sugar and high fructose corn syrup.  Fresh fruit is a much better option

Margarine- contains high amounts of sodium and trans fat.  Trans fat is one of the most unhealthy fats that you can consume and is known to increase LDL, or bad cholesterol.

Instant Soup Mix- Most soup mixes (especially ramen) contain lots of sodium, fat, and in some instances monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

Cereal- most commercial breakfast cereals are high in sugar content and the grains are overprocessed so there is little fiber or nutrient value, so they fortify the cereal, adding the vitamins back in.  Oatmeal made from scratch is a much better option.

Frozen dinners- while convenient, these ultra-processed products contain lots of sodium, sugar, and usually an overabundance of fat, not to mention preservatives and other additives.

Potato chips- chips and other salty snacks found in the snack aisle tend to be loaded with salt and trans fat.

Soda and other sugary drinks- soda is full of empty calories, sugar, and additives.  Diet soda is not much better.  Try flavoring your own water with fresh fruit or drink freshly squeezed juice to satisfy your sugary drink craving.