Why is Processed Food Bad for Your Health

Nutritionists will advise you to minimize your intake of processed food, but which processed foods are considered junk food, and why are they harmful to your health? It is important to know why it is that processed food is bad for your health.

What are Processed Foods?

Technically, processed foods can be any food that is altered in some way during its preparation. The International Food Information Council defines processed food as any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it is ready to eat.

According the World Health Organization (WHO), food additives are substances added to food to maintain or improve its safety, freshness, taste, texture, or appearance. Some additives have been used for centuries to preserve foods such as salt in meats like bacon, or sugar in marmalade, or sulfur dioxide in wine. These food additives have been developed over the years to meet the needs of food production.

The WHO states that additives are needed to ensure processed food remains safe and in good condition from their journey from factories, to warehouses, to stores, and finally to consumers. Their use is only warranted if it serves a technological need such as to preserve the nutritional quality of food, increase the stability of food, and does not mislead consumers.

Food additives can come from plants, animals, minerals, or can be synthetic. There are several thousand food additives used today. The WHO along with the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) groups food additives into 3 categories.

The 3 categories are flavoring agents, the second is enzyme preparations, and the third is sweeteners and colors. The 4 groups further into article are the groups made by the NOVA food classification system.

Categories of Food Addictives


Flavoring Agents

Flavoring agents make up the greatest number of additives in foods. These flavorings are used to improve the smell or taste of food. There are natural flavorings such as spices, fruits, or nut blends, to flavorings that imitate natural ones.

Enzyme preparations are also a type of additive that may or may not end up in a final food. Enzymes occur naturally in food, and boost biochemical reactions. Enzymes can come from plants, animal products, or from bacteria. Enzymes are mainly used in baking to improve dough, for sulfur dioxide in wine for fermentation, and in cheese to improve the formation of curds.

Other additives can be used to color and sweeten foods as well as preserve them. These additives are added to food when it is being prepared, packaged, transported, or stored and eventually become a component of the food. 

Preservatives can slow the break down of food by mold, air, bacteria, or yeast. They can also help with contamination that can lead to foodborne illness. Colorings are added to food to replace the colors lost during preparation and to make them look better. Non-sugar sweeteners are used in the place of sugar to add fewer calories to food.  The WHO along with the FAO are responsible for assessing the risks of food additives to human health. Only food additives that do not cause a considerable health risk to consumers can be used.

The government and the WHO’s definition of processed foods include a wide array of foods ranging from frozen vegetables, dried fruit, and canned beans, to whole wheat bread, cereal, frozen dinners, candy, and soda. All of these foods are the vast majority of what Americans eat. Because of this diversity, classification systems were developed to categorize foods based on their level of processing. With the level of processing comes the debate over which levels of processed foods are considered healthy and unhealthy.

To help address this issue, Researchers in Brazil created NOVA, a food classification system that categorizes foods according to the extent and purpose of food processing. The NOVA classification assigns a group to food products based on how much processing they have been through.

Group 1 is minimally processed foods which are natural foods altered by processes that include removal of inedible parts, drying, crushing, grinding, fractioning, filtering, roasting, boiling, fermentation, pasteurization, refrigeration, chilling, freezing, putting in containers, and vacuum packaging..

This degree of processing generally doesn’t render a food unhealthy because it doesn’t lose any of its nutritional value. An example would be pre-chopped vegetables that are cleaned, and bagged making them easier to cook with and store.  Other examples are plain nuts or seeds, dried fruits or herbs, chilled or frozen meat, and pasteurized milk and yogurt without sugar.


Processed Culinary Ingredients

Group 2 is processed culinary ingredients such oils, butter, sugar, and salt, which are derived from group 1, and include processes such as pressing, refining, grinding, milling, and drying.

The purpose of group 2 foods is to make products that are suitable for use in the home or restaurant. Group 2 foods are dishes and meals such as stews, soups, broths, salads, breads, preserves, drinks, and desserts.


Processed Additions to Food

Group 3 is processed foods such as bottled or canned vegetables, canned fish, fruits   in syrup, cheeses, and fresh bread. These foods are made by adding salt, oil, sugar or other substances from group 2 to group 1 food.

Most processed foods have 2 to 3 ingredients and are more commonly eaten in combination with other foods. The purpose of this processing is to increase durability of group 1 foods, or to modify or enhance their sensory qualities.


Ultra-Processed Foods

Group 4 is Ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods on the other hand are modified or altered by chemical processes. They are defined as industrial formulations with five or more ingredients (wphna.org). Additives, preservatives, colorings, fats, sugar, and sodium are used to increase shelf life and preserve texture making them ready to eat and very convenient.

Ultra-processed foods are purposely engineered to increase palatability and decrease satiability making consumers wanting and consuming more of them. A multitude of processes are used to combine multiple ingredients such as hydrogenation, and hydrolyzation, extrusion, moulding, and pre-processing for frying.

These Ultra-processed foods are so chemically changed that they lose their nutritional value making them much more unhealthy. Ingredients used in ultra-processed foods are sugar, which can be listed by other names such as corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, cane sugar, dextrose, malt syrup, molasses, or turbinado sugar.

Sodium can be used in the form of monosodium glutamate, or disodium phosphate. Examples of preservatives are ascorbic acid, sodium benzoate, and potassium sorbate. Emulsifiers such as soy lecithin and monogylcerides prevent separation of liquids and solids. Thickeners such as xantham gum, carrageenan, and guar gum add texture.

Colors such as artificial FD&C Yellow No. 6 are added to make food look more appealing. Looking at the ingredients on the back of the product is the easiest way to judge how processed a food really is. The longer the list, the more processed it is. The ingredients are listed in order of quantity by weight. This means that the food ingredient that weighs the most will be listed first and the ingredient that weighs the least is listed last.

Some examples of ultra- processed foods are most packaged baked goods, cookies, chips, and crackers, frozen dinners, sugary beverages, candy, and luncheon meats.

Consumption of Ultra-processed foods has increased considerably over the decades worldwide. In the United States, studies have shown that 60% of calories come from ultra-processed foods, which contribute 90% of total dietary added sugar. Multiple studies have shown that the addition of high amounts of fats, sugar, and sodium used in the production of ultra-processed foods are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and cancer.

With a higher consumption of ultra-processed food (more than 5 servings a day) associated with a greater risk of mortality. Here are the top food additives that contribute to these health conditions.

High-fructose corn syrup or HFCS is a processed version of corn syrup used to sweeten foods and drinks. Research has shown that people metabolize high fructose corn syrup in a way that raises the risk for obesity and Type 2 Diabetes. This stems from the observation that obesity in the United States increased with the increased consumption of high fructose corn syrup. HFCS became a popular sweetener in late 1970’s.

At this time the price of regular sugar was high and corn prices were low due to government subsidies. The corn is first milled to produce cornstarch, which is then processed further to create corn syrup. Corn syrup consists mostly of glucose. To make it sweeter some of the glucose is converted to fructose.

The main reason HFCS is unhealthy is because of the large amounts of fructose it supplies. The liver is the only organ that can metabolize fructose in significant amounts. When the liver gets overloaded it turns the extra fructose into fat, increasing the risk of atherosclerosis. Some of the fat can also store itself in the liver causing a fatty liver. In addition, HFCS causes inflammation in the body increasing the risk for metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and Type 2 Diabetes.

Trans fats are another example of Ultra-processed additives linked to disease. Trans fats are a form of unsaturated fat. Artificial trans fats are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oil to make them more solid at room temperature. This process then gives them a longer shelf life.

The primary dietary source for trans fats in processed foods is partially hydrogenated oils. Trans fats are believed to increase the risk of heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes by increasing LDL (bad cholesterol) and lowering HDL (good cholesterol). Excess inflammation is linked to an increased risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and arthritis. Studies have found that trans fats increase inflammatory markers especially in people with excess body fat.

Artificial sweeteners are another group of food additives that have health concerns. Artificial sweeteners, also known as sugar substitutes, low-calorie sweeteners, or nonnutritive sweeteners, offer the sweetness of sugar without the calories. The most popular sugar substitutes are Saccharin (Sweet’N Low), Aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal), Acesulfame potassium (Sunett), Sucralose (Splenda), or Stevia (Truvia). Artificial sweeteners are primarily found in diet sodas, other diet beverages, baked goods, and other sweetened products.

These sweeteners are used as a way to consume less calories and sugar. Sweeteners were then used to aid in weight loss or control blood sugar levels in people who have diabetes.  However, evidence has been emerging indicating that these sweeteners have negative effects on health.

Artificial sweeteners may be associated with an increased risk of obesity, long-term weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. This is mainly due to the fact that artificial sweeteners have been found to stimulate appetite in the brain leading to an increased intake of food and as a result, weight.

Another food additive to mention that negatively affects health is Sodium Nitrate. Sodium Nitrate is a type of salt added to food to preserve its shelf life. Nitrates are found in foods such as ham, hot dogs, bacon, lunchmeat, salami, beef jerky, and smoked fish. Nitrates prevent the break down of fat in these foods, and are a type of antimicrobial. Nitrates also occur naturally in foods. Nitrates are found naturally in soil and are necessary for plants to grow.

Vegetables that have a considerable amount of Nitrates are celery, carrots, spinach, radishes, cabbage, beets, and lettuce. Although Nitrates are a natural part of our diet, research has shown that too much may contribute to certain health conditions. Once eaten Nitrates are converted into Sodium Nitrites. Nitrites are then converted into nitrosamines that may be carcinogenic and cause an increased risk for stomach and esophageal cancer. Whether Nitrites actually cause cancer is still controversial. But because Nitrites are high in sodium and saturated fat, they can possibly contribute to issues with heart disease.

Finally, a number of studies have found a link between Nitrites and Type 1 Diabetes. The reasons why Nitrites are toxic to the pancreas and its ability to produce insulin are not entirely clear. However, some studies have found a link between the intake of bacon and pancreatic cancer.

With all of these negative effects on health from just four of the many types of food additives, lowering them in your diet is a very important step toward enhancing your health, and lowering your risk for disease. While completely eliminating food additives is not realistic, decreasing them will make room for more wholesome and nutritious foods.

Changing a lot of your eating behaviors isn’t easily done overnight. But the first step is becoming more aware of the foods and products that you are currently eating. After this, you can consider if there is another option that won’t put your health at risk.

Works Cited – References

  1. World Health Organization. “Food Additives.” Food additives-World Health Organization, 30 4 2020
  2. Harvard T.H. CHAN School of Public Health.” The Nutrition Source Processed Foods and Health.” 2 April, 2020.
  3. Cannon, Geoffrey. “NOVA. The star shines bright. Position paper 2.” net, Jan-March 2016.
  4. Nwosa, Nkem. “Can Ultra-Processed Foods Be Bad For Your Health?” obesitymedicine.org, 5 September 2019.
  5. Link, Rachael. “ 12 Common Food Additives-Should You Avoid Them?” healthline.com, 23 April 2018, www.healthline.com/nutrition/common-food-additives. Accessed April, 2020.
  6. Kuriyakose, Elwin. “Artificial sweeteners can cause health problems too!!”. 4 January 2019.

Leslie Welsch, MS, RD, CDE, CDN has over 15 years of private practice experience, she has joined Dr. Atwa  at Long Island Laparoscopic practicing bariatric nutrition as well as regular medical nutrition therapy. While Leslie takes a research-based approach to her clients’ health and well-being, emotional and motivational support are essential to her practice.