My dad laughs at me when I refer to food as “processed”.  To him, most foods we eat are processed in some way. Oranges are cut from trees, ground beef has been ground in a machine and butter is cream that has been separated from the milk and churned.  There is however, a difference between mechanical processing and chemical processing.  If you take one single food with no added chemicals, then it doesn’t matter if it’s been ground or put into a jar. It’s still real food.  On the other hand, foods that have been chemically processed and made solely from refined ingredients and artificial substances, are what is generally known as processed food.

Here is my beef with processed foods… (no pun intended)

1. High Sugar Content

Processed foods are usually loaded with added sugar… or its evil twin, High Fructose Corn Syrup.

It is well known that sugar, when consumed in excess, is seriously harmful.  Sugar provides zero nutritional value, but a large amount of energy.  The problem is that empty calories are just the beginning when it comes to the harmful effects of sugar…

Many studies show that sugar can have devastating effects on metabolism that go way beyond its calorie content.  An over abundance of sugar can lead to some of the world’s leading killers… including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.  Most people aren’t putting massive amounts of sugar in their coffee anymore or on top of their cereal, instead they’re getting it from processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages.

Bottom Line: Processed foods and beverages are the biggest sources of added sugar (and HFCS) in the diet. Sugar is very unhealthy and can have serious adverse effects on metabolism when consumed in excess.

2. Contains Artificial Ingredients

If you look at the ingredients label for a processed, packaged food, many times you won’t have a clue what some of the ingredients are.

That’s because many of the ingredients in there aren’t actual food… they are artificial chemicals that are added for various purposes.

This is an example of a processed food, an Atkins Meal Bar, which is actually marketed as a low-carb friendly health food.

Ingredients: Chocolate Flavored Coating (Polydextrose, Palm Kernel and Palm Oil, Whey Protein Isolate, Cocoa Powder (Processed with Alkali), Soy Lecithin, Artificial Flavor, Sucralose, Acesulfame Potassium), Peanut Butter Flavored Layer (Maltitol, Palm Kernel and Palm Oil, Peanut Butter, Partially Defatted Peanut Flour, Nonfat Dry Milk, Whey Powder, Peanuts, Salt, Soy Lecithin, Anhydrous Milk Fat, Cocoa Powder (Processed with Alkali)), Glycerin, Protein Blend (Soy Protein Isolate, Whey Protein Isolate, Sodium Caseinate), Peanuts, Hydrolyzed Gelatin, Water, Polydextrose, Peanut Butter (Ground Roasted Peanuts), Cellulose, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Palm Kernel Oil, Olive Oil, Clarified Butter, Soy Lecithin, Guar Gum, Vitamin Mineral Mix (Dicalcium Phosphate, Magnesium Oxide, Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Sodium Ascorbate, Vitamin E Acetate, Niacinamide, Zinc Oxide, D-Calcium Pantothenate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Thiamin Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin A Palmitate, Folic Acid, Biotin, Chromium Amino Acid Chelate, Sodium Selenite, Phylloquinone (Vitamin K1), Cyanocobalamin (Vitamin B12)), Salt, Maltodextrin, Citric Acid, Sucralose, Mono and Diglycerides, Dipotassium Phosphate. FD&C color.

In Andrea’s world – this is not food.  This is a highly processed bar that contains:

  • Preservatives: Chemicals that prevent the food from rotting.
  • Colorants: Chemicals that are used to give the food a specific color.
  • Flavor: Chemicals that give the food a particular flavor.
  • Texturants: Chemicals that give a particular texture.

Keep in mind that processed foods can contain dozens of additional chemicals that aren’t even listed on the label.

For example, “artificial flavor” and even “natural flavor” are both a proprietary blend. Manufacturers don’t have to disclose exactly these ingredients are and it is usually a combination of chemicals.

For this reason, if you see “artificial flavor” or “natural flavor” on an ingredients list, it could mean that there are 10 or more additional chemicals that are blended in to give a specific flavor.

Of course, most of these chemicals have allegedly been tested for safety. But given that the regulatory authorities still think that sugar and highly refined vegetable oils are safe, I personally take their “stamp of approval” with a grain of salt.

Bottom Line: Many highly processed foods contain  artificial chemicals, including flavorants, texturants, colorants and preservatives.  Read labels!

3. Often High in “Simple Carbs”

There is a lot of controversy regarding carbohydrates in the diet.  Some feel the majority of our energy intake should be from carbs, while others think carbs should be avoided like the plague.

But one thing that almost everyone agrees on, is that carbohydrates from whole foods or “complex carbs” are much better for the body than carbohydrates from processed foods or “simple carbs”.

Processed foods are often high in these simple carbs and one of the challenges with this is that carbohydrates are quickly broken down in the digestive tract, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels.

This can lead to carb cravings a few hours later when blood sugar levels go down again. This phenomenon is also called the “blood sugar roller coaster,” which many people who have been on a high-carb diet can relate to.  

Do NOT be fooled by labels like “whole grains” that are often plastered on processed food packages, including breakfast cereals.  These are usually whole grains that have been pulverized into very fine flour and are just as harmful as their refined counterparts.

If you’re going to eat carbs, get them from whole, single ingredient foods, not processed junk foods.

Bottom Line: The carbohydrates you find in processed foods are usually refined, “simple” carbohydrates. These lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels and cause negative health effects.

4. Low nutritional value

Processed foods are extremely low in essential nutrients compared to whole, unprocessed foods.

In some cases, synthetic vitamins and minerals are added to the foods to compensate for what was lost during processing.  However, synthetic nutrients are NOT a good replacement for the nutrients found in whole foods.

Also, let’s not forget that real foods contain much more than just the standard vitamins and minerals that we’re all familiar with.

Real foods… like plants, nuts, seeds and animals, contain thousands of other trace nutrients that science is just beginning to grasp.

Maybe one day we will invent a chemical blend that can replace all these nutrients, but until that happens… the only way to get them in your diet is to eat whole, unprocessed foods.

The more processed foods you consume, the less you will get of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and various trace nutrients.

Bottom Line: There are many nutrients found in whole foods that are not found in processed foods. The more processed foods you eat, the less you will get of these nutrients.

5. Low in fiber

Fiber, especially soluble, fermentable fiber, has various benefits such as contributing to heart health and digestive health.  

Processed foods may have less fiber than unprocessed fruits, oats, and bran.

There is also evidence that fiber can slow down the absorption of carbohydrates and help us feel more satisfied with fewer calories.

Soluble fiber can also help treat many cases of constipation which is a very common problem today.

The fiber that is found naturally in foods is often lost during processing, or intentionally removed. Therefore, most processed foods are very low in fiber.

Bottom Line: Soluble, fermentable fiber has various important health benefits, but most processed foods are very low in fiber because it is lost or intentionally removed during processing.

6. Often high in trans fats

Processed foods are often high in unhealthy fats.

They usually contain cheap fats, refined seed- and vegetable oils (like soybean oil) that are often hydrogenated… which turns them into trans fats.

Vegetable oils are extremely unhealthy and most people are eating way too much of them already.

These fats contain excessive amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids, which can drive oxidation and inflammation in the body.

Several studies show that when people eat more of these highly processed oils, they have a significantly increased risk of heart disease, which is the most common cause of death in Western countries today.

If the fats are hydrogenated, that makes them even worse. Hydrogenated (trans) fats are among the nastiest, unhealthiest substances you can put into your body.

Bottom Line: The best way to avoid seed oils and trans fats is to avoid processed foods. Eat real fats like ghee and cold pressed oils like coconut, olive and avocado.

Conclusion: When we replace real foods like fish, meat, fruit and vegetables with processed junk foods, we increase our risk of illness and poor health. Real food is the key to good health, processed food is not. Period.

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