Health risks of processed food
"Processed food" includes food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways. Any time we cook, bake or prepare food, we're processing food.
Processed food falls on a spectrum from minimally to heavily processed:
- Minimally processed foods — such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables and roasted nuts — often are simply pre-prepped for convenience.
- Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna.
- Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture (sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives) include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes.
- Ready-to-eat foods — such as crackers, granola and deli meat — are more heavily processed.
- The most heavily processed foods often are pre-made meals including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.
Health Risks of Heavily Processed Foods
There are many potential health effects of ultra processed foods, including:
- Increased cancer risk: Increase in consumption of ultra processed food was associated with a 12 percent higher risk for cancer.
- Too much sugar, sodium and fat. Heavily processed foods often include unhealthy levels of added sugar, sodium and fat. These ingredients make the food we eat taste better, but too much of them leads to serious health issues like obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
- Lacking in nutritional value: Heavy processing strips many foods of their basic nutrients, which is why many foods today are fortified with fiber, vitamins and minerals.
- Calorie dense and addicting: It’s very easy to overindulge in unhealthy food and consume more calories than we realize.
- Quicker to digest. Processed foods are easier to digest than unprocessed, whole foods. That means our bodies burn less energy digesting them. It’s estimated we burn half as many calories digesting processed foods compared to unprocessed foods. This fact combined with the calorie density of processed foods in general can make it easy to pack on the pounds.
- Full of artificial ingredients: There are about 5,000 substances that get added to our food. Most of them have never been tested by anyone other than the company using them. That includes additives to change color, texture, flavor and odor as well as ingredients like preservatives and sweeteners.
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