Are processed foods really bad for you?


Processed foods are generally thought to be inferior to unprocessed foods. They may bring to mind a packaged food item containing many ingredients, perhaps even artificial colors, flavors, or other chemical additives. Often referred to as convenience or pre-prepared foods, processed foods are suggested to be a contributor to the obesity epidemic and rising prevalence of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.

Generally, this is true, but precisely, it is not. When the word ‘processed’ is thrown around, it generally means refined.

However, It’s actually a matter of vocabulary and you need to know the difference between a whole food, processed food and a refined food.  

Whole Foods are foods that haven’t been altered from its natural state, and haven’t had any nutrients removed.

The term ‘whole food’ is normally applied to vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains with minimal processing, but it can apply to animal foods too.

It’s not as simple as neatly dividing foods into two groups – either whole foods or processed foods. Most foods we eat have undergone some degree of processing, whether it’s washing, chopping, drying, freezing or canning, and that’s not always a bad thing.

For example, freezing and canning food gives us access to a variety of foods all year round.

But not all processing is a problem

Processed food is simply a food that has been changed through some form of processing (grinding, pureeing, cooking, etc), but hasn’t had any nutritional components removed.

There’s a big difference between “ultra-processed” or “refined” and “minimally processed” healthy foods that are close to their natural state. Whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables are all close to the state they were in when harvested and come loaded with vitamins, minerals, fibre and other essential nutrients. But as the degree of processing and refining increases, the food’s nutritional value decreases.

A processed food as one that has undergone any changes to its natural state—that is, any raw agricultural commodity subjected to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. The food may include the addition of other ingredients such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars, and fats.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

With more processing, the likelihood that less-beneficial ingredients like fat, salt and sugar are added goes up and the likelihood of vitamins and minerals being present goes down. The US-led National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that 90% of the added sugar in our Western diet comes from ultra-processed foods.

Refined food or Ultra-processed are highly processed foods that have been stripped of their original nutrient content and fibre. Food that doesn’t contain all of its original nutrients.   Food that has had parts removed, leaving it with less nutrients than when it was whole.

These are foods are processed food that go beyond the incorporation of salt, sweeteners, or fat to include artificial colors and flavors and preservatives that promote shelf stability, preserve texture, and increase palatability. Several processing steps using multiple ingredients comprise the ultra-processed food.

Refined white flour, white pasta, white sugar, oil, and products made of these ingredients. 

A processed food can be a refined food, however it can also be a healthy whole food that has simply been gone through a process, like chopped, rolled or ground.

A processed food could be good for you or bad for you.  It depends on whether it’s a processed whole food or a processed refined food.

From a nutritional standpoint, processed and even ultra-processed foods can provide key nutrients. Some nutrients like protein are naturally retained throughout processing, and others like B vitamins and iron may be added back if they are lost during processing. Fruits and vegetables that are quickly frozen after harvesting can retain the majority of vitamin C.

Throughout history, foods fortified with specific nutrients have prevented deficiencies and their related health problems in certain populations.

Processing by certain methods like pasteurization, cooking, and drying can destroy or inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. Additives such as emulsifiers preserve the texture of foods, such as preventing peanut butter from separating into solid and liquid parts. Other functions of processing include delaying the spoilage of food; preserving desirable sensory qualities of food (flavor, texture, aroma, appearance); and increasing convenience in preparing a complete meal.

But food processing also has drawbacks. Depending on the degree of processing, many nutrients can be destroyed or removed. Peeling outer layers of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may remove plant nutrients (phytochemicals) and fiber. Heating or drying foods can destroy certain vitamins and minerals. Although food manufacturers can add back some of the nutrients lost, it is impossible to recreate the food in its original form.


Let’s have a look some examples:

Peanut butter:

This is the most well-known nut butter, and the best kind is simply peanuts ground to a paste. This is a process, and usually nothing is removed from the nut so they maintain their nutrients. Butters wind up being more dense than the original nut or seed, so you would need a smaller portion of nut butter to get the same nutrients and calories.

The important thing to watch for health-wise with nut/seed butters is that the typical peanut butters have added sugar, oil and salt. So try always to go for the natural kinds, which will list only the nut or seed as an ingredient.

Yogurt:

Yogurt may fall into more than one category: plain yogurt is minimally processed, but fruited yogurt with added sweeteners could be labeled either processed or ultra-processed depending on how much sweetener and other chemical additives are incorporated.

Dry fruits:

It’s basically fruit that’s been dried (like apricots, figs, raisins, cranberries, dates, goji, etc) has gone through a process, so based on the definition is being processed.

But no nutrients have been removed, just water, so they’re more portable, more concentrated in nutrients and they keep better than fresh fruit.

The only thing to watch with dried fruits is that sometimes they use sulfites or sugar for preserving them and oil to maintain moisture.

* Dried apricots are an easy one to see because the natural ones are brown-dark orange, while the ones preserved with sulfites are bright orange.

Flours:

Flours are basically ground dry grains or legumes. So that’s (again) a form of processing, Whole grain flours are very convenient way to eat grains or legumes because they don’t go stale and lose nutrients.

But White flours have had fiber removed so they would be refined. They’re pretty empty calories and can cause issues in digestion cuz their lacking on fiber.

Dried Herbs And Spices:

Fresh Herbs and spices are obviously fantastic, but dried are easier to store for longer time frames, and are easier to add a sprinkle to a dish on the fly.

And drying means they’re processed, but haven’t lost any significant portion of their nutrition and are surprisingly high in antioxidants and nutrients.

So I hope that helps clear things up!


If you are deciding whether or not to include a highly processed food in your diet, it may be useful to evaluate its nutritional content and long-term effect on health. An ultra-processed food that contains an unevenly high ratio of calories to nutrients may be considered unhealthy.

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