We’ve all heard it before: “processed foods are bad!” Just don’t eat ‘em—right? But, why are processed foods bad for you? Really,“processed food” is a broad term, and not all processed foods are inherently “bad” for us. How about frozen veggies or canned beans? Some processing actually can make healthy foods more convenient and accessible! But, it’s the ultra processed foods that we certainly want to limit or avoid. So what are ultra processed foods?
Pretty much, think of the most processed, ready-to-eat, pre-packaged foods you can. And these are the ‘bad’ kind of processed foods—lacking nutrients and loaded with food additives. Of course, the ideal is to eat a diet filled with real, whole foods!(Shout out to anyone doing the Whole30 challenge with us during the month of May!)But, the reality is that many wholesome foods are actually somewhat processed. That doesn’t make them all ‘bad!’
The key is to know the difference between minimally and ultra processed foods. And, to READ those nutrition labels to see exactly what you’re putting in your body! (Especially for anyone doing Whole30…) So let’s get to it: are processed foods bad? And what are ‘ultra processed’ foods?
What Is a Processed Food?
We tend to think in terms of “processed” and “unprocessed” foods. Frozen dinner: processed. Broccoli: unprocessed. Right? Really, a ‘processed’ food is just any food that’s been deliberately changed in some way before we eat it. And that definitely includes breakfast cereals and frozen dinners, synthesized using artificial colors and preservatives. But, even frozen, dried, canned, or just pre-washed and chopped foods have been ‘processed’ in some way.
So, a steam-in-bag package of frozen broccoli IS technically a ‘processed’ food! It’s been washed, chopped, and flash-frozen before it gets to us. BUT, that does not mean pre-cut broccoli is ‘bad.’ (Nor that frozen dinners are ‘good’ for us like broccoli!) Both may come in a package, but the frozen dinner is clearly more processed. It’s been ‘deliberately changed’ in a much more drastic way. And, the more that foods are changed through processing, the further they get from their real, whole foods form.
So Are Processed Foods Bad for You?
Not always. Actually, minimal processing can make healthy, nutritious foods more accessible, like frozen vegetables or canned beans. You might not take the time to cook beans yourself, but canned beans are pre-cooked for you. Or, frozen veggies might fit better in your budget than fresh! These are still real, whole foods, but that minimal processing makes them easier to use. Which means you’re more likely to eat them! Either way, isn’t it better to eat those minimally processed beans and veggies than NONE at all?!
But, there’s an entire range of processed foods, some more processed than others. Remember, less processing means closer to its real, whole foods form. And not every item in the grocery store that comes in a package is a ‘bad’ processed food. Really, it’s the heavily processed foods—a.k.a. the ultra processed foods—that we need to watch out for…
Bottom Line: Not all processed foods are ‘bad.’ Items like canned beans or frozen veggies make healthy eating easier and more doable! But, we have to learn how to make smart choices when it comes to processed foods. (Hint: Keep reading to learn!)
The Spectrum of Processed Foods
It helps to think of processed foods on a spectrum—ranging from minimally to ultra processed. Ultimately, most of the foods we get in the grocery store today have been ‘processed’ in some way. Even the apples had to be picked and cut! But labeling foods as ‘processed’ or not isn’t what’s important. What IS important is recognizing ultra processed foods, and looking at the ingredients to see exactly what we’re putting into our bodies.
Minimally Processed Foods
On one end, there are minimally processed foods, which go through some kind of mechanical processing. Basically, they’re real, whole foods that have been physically altered or prepared in some way. So greens are washed and bagged, nuts are blended into a butter, beans are cooked and canned, veggies are harvested and frozen at the peak time of freshness.
The processing is minor, but it can make prepping and cooking with these healthy foods SO much easier. Really, these are the ideal ‘processed foods’ to include in a healthy diet. You still get the wholesome nutrients, with no junk added—and there’s less work for you to do!
(Somewhat) Processed Foods
BUT, not all items like frozen veggies and nut butters are necessarily ‘minimally processed.’ Towards the middle of the spectrum, ‘processing’ starts to include adding ingredients to change the flavor and texture of foods. Items like frozen broccoli in a cheesy sauce, yogurt with added sugar and flavoring, or ‘no-stir’ nut butters have additives that make them more processed.
This is why it’s so crucial to actually READ nutrition labels and ingredients lists!(Especially for anyone who’s concerned with food additives or doing Whole30!) Often, it’s the seemingly healthy options that can be the most problematic. The no-stir peanut butter seems like the same thing as the natural peanut butter. But, when you read the ingredients list, you’ll see that the no-stir comes with hydrogenated oils!
Somewhat processed foods fall into a bit of a gray area. And only YOU can decide which have a place in your healthy lifestyle. But, the most wholesome choices will always be the least processed, with the fewest food additives.
Ultra Processed Foods
Then, on the other side of the spectrum are the crackers, breads, frozen pizzas, microwave dinners: the ultra processed foods. But, this category can also include seemingly ‘healthy’ items, like protein bars and powders! These foods go through chemical processing and are chemically altered with synthetic food additives. And those additives—like added salts, sugars, sweeteners, trans fats, preservatives, artificial flavors and colors—significantly lessen the foods’ nutritional value. When we hear about ‘bad’ processed foods, these are the worst of the worst.
For the most part, ultra processed foods are mass-produced, packaged items. And, they’re made mostly or entirely from not-real-food or not-so-nutritious ingredients. For example, candies and sodas are pretty much ALL sugar (or artificial sweeteners). And there are other ultra processed foods made of mostly hydrogenated oils (a.k.a. trans fats), modified starches, and protein isolates. Plus, there tend to be plenty of other artificial additives thrown into the mix.
Unlike minimally processed foods, ultra processed foods go through a MUCH more drastic change in processing. Because, with enough artificial additives and synthetic ingredients, real foods can turn into processed junk. Sure, that frozen dinner started out with real chicken and real veggies. But, once it’s loaded up with salt, preservatives, artificial flavors, and artificial colorings, it’s not offering our bodies real FUEL anymore. While those additives make ultra processed foods look nice, taste good, and last long, they’re not doing anything good for our bodies!
Bottom Line: At the end of the day, ultra processed foods just aren’t real food!
Examples of Ultra Processed Foods
Here are some examples of ultra processed foods we see in grocery stores today:
Frozen dinners, instant foods, microwave popcorn
Many packaged snack foods, like chips, crackers, pastries, baked goods
Breakfast cereals, granolas, granola bars
Fruit snacks and gummies
Processed meats, deli meats
Plant-based alternatives to animal products, like vegan cheese, veggie burgers, or meat substitutes made from processed soy
Protein bars, powders, and shakes; other ‘health’ supplements
Full-length version of this infographic included at the end of the post!
Problems with Ultra Processed Foods
A major problem with processed foods in general is how frequently many people eat them. In the U.S., as well as Europe, Canada, New Zealand, and Brazil, between 25% to 50% of the average person’s diet consists of ultra processed foods! They’re cheap, convenient, flavorful, and have a long shelf-life, making them popular choices. Of course, government organizations, like the FDA, deem these foods (and the additives in them) as safe. But, the reality is that ultra-processed foods just don’t provide us with quality fuel.
Sure, they contain some real foods, and they provide calories to our bodies. But, our bodies need MORE than just a certain number of calories. The quality of the calories we eat is what matters—both for weight loss and for our overall health. Plus, some of the additives and chemicals may actually cause us harm. In fact, a 2018 study of 100,000+ people found that eating ultra processed foods can increase our cancer risk. In the study, a 10% increase in the amount of processed foods in a person’s diet was associated with an over 10% increased risk of cancer.
Ideally, we want the majority of we eat to be real, whole foods and minimally processed foods.If you regularly eat ultra processed foods, it’s important to educate yourself about what you’re eating. And, to choose which ultra processed foods are worth eating, as well as how frequently you eat them. Because, even if they’re convenient and delicious, ultra processed foods come with their fair share of problems:
Low in Nutrients
The more that foods are processed and altered with additives, the more nutrients, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber are stripped from them. In some cases, synthetic vitamins and minerals are added back into processed foods to compensate for the loss. (A.k.a. ‘enriched’ foods.) But, these synthetic nutrients aren’t a quality replacement for real, whole foods. More processed foods in your diet = fewer essential nutrients fueling your body!
High in Sugar & Salt
Where nutrients are lacking, there’s often salt and/or sugar added. And that’s because they can add flavor, improve the color of processed foods, or make them last longer. First, it’s important to be aware that most sodium we consume is not from salting our own food. On average, 75% of it comes from processed and packaged foods, which isn’t providing us with much healthy fuel!
But, it’s also important to know that MANY processed foods are sneaky sources of sugar. (Like breads and pasta sauce!?) In particular, high-fructose corn syrup is hiding in SO many foods, which makes for not-so-fuel-filled calories. And, just like with sodium intake, the average American consumes far too many added sugars. By limiting or avoiding ultra processed foods, we can significantly reduce our sodium and sugar intake!
Made from Refined Grains
Many processed foods and snacks are made from refined grains. Although they have a longer shelf-life, they lack the healthy nutrients and fiber that whole grains offer. And, without those nutrients, our bodies process them SO quickly. Refined grains cause blood sugar levels to rise, insulin to spike, and then cravings come soon after. So, we feel less satisfied after eating ultra processed foods, and are more likely to keep eating. Plus, those blood sugar spikes can also have long-term consequences, like metabolic issues, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes.
Now, don’t be deceived by “whole grain” claims on ultra processed food packages. Many ‘whole-grain’ breads are actually just refined white breads in disguise. A loaf might look nice with a sprinkle of oats and seeds on top, but the first ingredient is still ‘enriched wheat flour.’ (A.k.a. refined flour.) Or, sometimes even molasses is used to make refined-grain breads look more brown! Moral of the story: READ the labels to make sure that a whole grain is listed as the first ingredient.
Require Less Energy to Digest
Ultra processed foods are designed to be easy to eat (and overeat). They’re low in nutrients, and they digest quickly. All of this means we can eat more of ultra processed foods faster, without feeling full. Obviously, not ideal for weight loss. With actual fuel, essential nutrients, and fiber, whole foods digest much more slowly. And, they keep us feeling full and satisfied for much longer! But, our bodies may even burn less energy eating ultra processed foods versus real, whole foods.
In a research study, two groups of participants each ate a slightly different sandwich. In the ultra processed group, the sandwich was made with refined white bread and processed cheese product. In the less-processed group, they had multi-grain bread and whole cheddar cheese. Now, the less-processed meal isn’t exactly a ‘whole foods’ meal… Still, the less-processed group burned almost twice as many calories during the meal than the group who ate the ultra processed meal!
“Hyper-Rewarding” & Addictive
Research shows that sugary, salty, fatty, calorie-dense foods actually flood the brain with a whole lot of dopamine. And dopamine makes us feel good when we do things like eat a good meal or hug someone we love. Even when we’re just thirsty and finally drink water, dopamine releases and gives the brain a ‘reward.’ Then, that reward tells the brain “this is good, remember to do this again!” Dopamine is actually crucial in learning all kinds of important behaviors.
But, the dopamine surge from sugar and highly-rewarding junk foods is SO much more intense. It overrides our brains’ ability to exercise self-control, which is why sometimes we just can’t stop eating ultra processed foods. This is one way compulsive eating and even food addiction can result. Every time our brain gets that dopamine reward, it reinforces the behavior so we keep eating those hyper-rewarding foods.
In fact, brain scans show that these foods affect the brain as intensely as cocaine and other drugs of abuse. (Sometimes, more intensely.) We can even build up a tolerance to sugar, as our brains get used to the intense dopamine rush. Then, we need to consume more and more sugar just to feel the same reward/rush. Much like drugs, the more we eat ultra processed foods, the more we’ll crave more of them!
Both sugar and drugs of abuse affect the same regions of the brain—the “rewards center.” But, brain scans show that sweet, sugary foods can produce an even more intense dopamine surge than drugs like cocaine!
Countless Artificial Additives
On top of the added salt and sugar, food manufacturers pack TONS of artificial additives and chemicals into ultra processed foods. These are the artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, preservatives—everything on a nutrition label you can’t pronounce. (Plus, even some sneaky artificial additives we can pronounce.) And those additives make ultra-processed foods last a long time, taste delicious, and cheaper to produce.
While every additive has to be approved by the U.S. FDA, research studies reveal some with potential dangers. And, many ‘safe’ additives in the U.S. are even banned in other countries! There’s A LOT of debate around artificial sweeteners, flavors, colors, and preservatives. But, it’s important to do your own research so you can make informed decisions about what’s healthy for you.
In terms of processed and ultra processed foods, YOU have to decide what’s good for your lifestyle. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to living and eating healthily. Of course, the more real, whole foods that we can fuel our bodies with, the better! But, don’t forget that not ALL ‘processed foods’ are bad. Our best bet is to fill our diet with mostly whole foods and minimally processed foods.
And, most of us will still eat some ultra processed foods! But, it’s important to recognize that they’re not quite real foods anymore. Plus, they don’t offer our bodies much fuel—and some food additives can do harm. Try to think of ultra processed foods as an occasional (not daily!) treat. Take it slow, gradually phasing out ultra processed foods that you’ve come to rely on.
Whatever your health goals are—weight loss, muscle building, managing certain health conditions, or just overall wellness—one of the BEST things you can do is cut down on (or eliminate) ultra processed foods. Because our bodies want and NEED quality nutrients from real, whole foods! Shift focus away from low-calorie, sugar-free, low-fat health claims. The quality of our calories is what counts!
There are LOADS of food additives in ultra processed foods. Artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, artificial colors, oh my! And they can even hide in some seemingly ‘healthy’ items, like supplements, protein bars, salad dressings, and breads. But, what are these additives doing to our bodies? Learn about 8 of the most controversial food additives in the U.S. and what to watch out for on nutrition labels.
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