Why is processed food considered unhealthy

In an effort to eat healthier I keep running across the idea that processed food is unhealthy. I do not know if this is a scientific fact or if its just technophobia but I assume its more the latter.

The reasons processed foods are considered unhealthy usually revolve around 4 things

  1. The processed foods lack fiber
  • This is true.
  1. The processed foods have vitamins and minerals removed
  • True but they are put back in afterwards. That is why refined spaghetti is said to be ‘enriched’ so this argument seems false
  1. processed foods have a higher glycemic index
  • I don’t know if GI is a valid science right now since there are too many variables that go into blood sugar. Even if processed foods do have a higher GI this could be due mainly/solely to the lower fiber content, making this and point 1 the same thing.
  1. Processed foods don’t have as many natural chemicals that promote health in them like phytochemicals, saponins, lignans and probably alot of others we haven’t discovered yet.
  • This seems to be true. This fact alone is why I should prefer the unprocessed foods.

So the idea that processing foods removes health promoting chemicals seems like the only valid argument. The niacin, folate, etc. are put back into processed foods and since GI is not really reliable as far as I can tell then the GI arguments don’t matter much. Are there any other reasons besides the chemicals that are removed to prefer unprocessed foods?

Too much salt and preservatives?

The glycemic index is very reliable, but you also have to consider the amount of food that you’re eating. The glycemic load takes both into consideration. And while blood sugar is a complex system, releasing a lot of glucose in a short time perioid will raise it.

Many processed foods also have additives that are not wonderful–remember, trans-saturated fatty acids are very rare in nature.

The reason I avoid a lot of processed foods is that a lot (by no means all) of processed foods contain unacceptable to me quanitities of salt, sugar and fat, added to make them more immediately appealing. I can control how much, and what kind of fat and sugar is in my food much better if I prepare it from fresh ingredients.

I think you missed one big reason that I’ve seen stated -which may or may not be valid- that many people have concerns about the numbers and kinds of chemical preservatives used in heavily processed foods.

Oh, and a recent one I’ve seen (from discussion about the Weight Watchers Core plan) - processed foods are more convenient to eat and may therefore lead people to eat larger amounts more readily than they should. Again, your mileage may vary on how valid you find this claim. For example, they’d prefer you chop up fruit and combine it with plain yoghurt to getting a tub of fruit yoghurt, apparently at least partly because you’re less likely to snack out of hand if you have to do the food preparation to get the snack.

Generally, when a natural food is processed, a number of elements are lost - fiber being probably the biggest part, followed by micronutrients. True, fortified foods do have some of those vitamins and minerals put back in, but IIRC not all of them are replaced.

Fiber is good for you. It’s filling, helps stimulate intestinal walls, and helps to clear out the digestive system. The fat-soluble stuff, like in wheat bran IIRC, can bind with digestive substances that the body produces using cholesterol, which leads to a net loss of cholesterol, which tends to promote health. It might even bind to dietary fats and thus reduce calorie intake, but I’m not sure.

Moreover, consider that processed foods really are engineered. Ingredients and processes are slowly refined, tested, and evaluated; the end result is something that tastes good to a large amount of people, is cheap, is durable, and includes whatever properties the food is expected to have (light and fluffy, thick and juicy, etc).

Usually gritty, chunky fiber is taken out - and the vitamins and minerals go with it; sugar is added to enhance taste, and likewise for salt; fat is added for the ubiquitous “mouth feel” factor and the seemingly biological pleasantness it brings; extra ingredients are added for texture; and preservatives are added to make sure the product can sit on a shelf for a few weeks without trouble.

The end result is a great tasting food, but it might have lost its capacity to be an effective and nutritious bit of fuel.

If you read labels you will note that almost everything in a package or can has high levels of salt and sugar added. Canned vegetables nearly always contain both, and even frozen peas have sugar added. Prepared meats usually have high fructose corn syrup as the third ingredient (a sugar by any other name . . .) and may be a problem for an insipient diabetic like me. I avoid anything that has sugar (or corn syrup or “flavorings”, etc.) as higher than fifth on the list of ingredients. There is a reason the US has the highest rate of diabetes in its history. Fresh fruit contains natural sugar, and is healthy in moderation. Both fresh fruit and vegetables have fiber. Whole grains contain all their natural nutrition, plus the bran, while “whole grain” cereals made from whole grains but processed into flour and molded into flakes, crisps, or O’s have a lot removed. Adding chemical vitamins later is about as nutritious as eating the box the cereal came in with some vitamins sprayed on.

The nutrients which are added back into nutrient-stripped food are often not identical to the nutrients which were removed in processing. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter, but sometimes cheaper form which are not as bioavailable or cause unpleasant side effects are used. Iron supplementation, for example, can be done with Ferrous fumarate, Ferrous sulfate or Ferrous gluconate. Of the three, ferrous sulfate is the cheapest, but it has the unfortunate side effect of reacting with the hydrochloric acid in your stomach and becoming a rather harsh acid. Not fun if you have a sensitive stomach. It’s the worst offender of the three for causing other side effects, like constipation, nausea and vomitting. It’s also not the most readily absorbed by your body of the three. But it’s cheap, so it’s what’s often used.

What planet do you do your grocery shopping on? I just checked all my frozen vegetables - broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, spinach, brussel sprouts and PEAS, and not one of them include anything but the vegetable.

Frozen ain’t as good as fresh, but it’s pretty near, and WAY better than canned.

Let me second (third?) what Idlewild and DesertGeezer said about added sugar, salt, and fat. Processed foods tend to add a hefty chunk of at least one of the above, and often all three.

I would widen the definition of “processed foods”, at least for purposes of this discussion, to include stuff you buy from the usual fast-food places, because basically the same sort of game is being played: they’re adding stuff that makes it taste better at the time, but you’ll regret later. When I grill and eat a quarter-pound burger with catsup, mayo, lettuce, and tomato, it doesn’t cause my scale numbers to bounce up, the way a Mickey-D’s quarter-pounder would. And the same is true of a few slices of my homemade pepperoni pizza, as compared with Domino’s, or Pizza Hut’s, equivalent.

I don’t know what they’re adding, or how, but they are adding stuff that you can’t see, and it’s part of the reason why you just shouldn’t eat at those places very often if you want to maintain a healthy weight.

  1. You need a certain amount of dietary fiber in your diet (I think for women it’s 20-25 grams, for men it’s slightly higher, maybe 30-35 grams) to make your colon and other parts of your body work properly. Dietary fiber also makes you feel full, which prevents you from overeating. Processing removes a LOT of dietary fiber, especially the processing done to flour and rice. For example, if I recall correctly, the outer husk of rice is removed during processing. This husk is the part that contains most fiber, so removing it basically leaves you with plain starch, or a pile of empty calories, which is why brown rice is considered more nutritionally sound because it hasn’t been as processed.

  2. You should get most of your vitamins and minerals from foods, not from additives. As stated earlier, added vitamins & minerals aren’t always identical to those removed from food. Also, I have heard that they’re absorbed by your body better if you eat them in the food rather than taking a pill because certain nutritional components of foods make the natural vitamins & minerals easier to absorb and more effective.

  3. I don’t agree with the glycemic index. There are just as many arguments for low-GI foods as there are against it, and many scientists have shown that, unless you’re diabetic or boderline diabetic, it’s not really necessary to worry about GI because it’s often misleading and very restrictive. For example, while particular foods are low GI, combining those foods, even with low GI foods increases the food’s overall GI, so you have to know which foods to combine and how to cook them to keep GI down. It’s also tough to tell the GI of certain foods like condiments and sauces because so many ingredients and chemicals go into the making of them that it’s not really practical for someone without diabetes or pre-diabetes to bother.

  4. All these chemicals are very important to preventing disease, mitigating the effects of aging, etc. However, I really don’t think this reason alone is why you should consider eating whole foods. I think you’ve already made at least one other compelling argument to yourself (particularly regarding fiber) that would indicate that eating primarily whole unprocessed foods is best.

Actually, in some cases, frozen is better than fresh. I can only find the lamest of cites online, but Cornell University did a study showing that frozen vegetables can have more vitamins than fresh produce because frozen vegetables are picked ripe and frozen quickly, whereas vegetables that show up as fresh produce are often picked before they are ripe to reduce spoilage and damage in shipping. I’m sure this isn’t true of all frozen produce all the time. You can maximize your nutrition (and support local agriculture!) by going to the farmer’s market and getting field-fresh produce.

And it probably goes without saying that in the winter time canned tomatoes (especially if you look for low-salt brands) have better nutrition and taste than the bizarro styrofoam hydroponic greenhouse tomato-oids that show up in the produce department.

A little anecdote about food preservatives:

In November of 2003, I was having surgery, so I did a bunch of grocery shopping to stock up while my Mom would be staying with me. One of the items I bought was a loaf of Dutch Country Potato Bread.

During the few days Mom was there, we used maybe half the loaf…the other half got pushed to the back of the cabinet and I forgot about it. I noticed it a few months later, and that half loaf was still as pristine as the day I bought it…not a hint of mold. It became sort of a game for me, to see how long it would last before it molded up.

That half loaf of bread is still in my kitchen cabinet. It is now 16 months old. Not only is it unmolded, it is still squishy…so I know it hasn’t remained unmolded due to being dried out.

Dude…even an embalmed HUMAN BODY will rot in 16 months. The amount of preservatives that must be in a loaf of bread that allow it to remain moist and free of mold for 16 months scares me.

Yeah but what is wrong with that?

Ain’t natural, son. Just ain’t natural.

If you don’t see anything wrong with food that is either:

A. So completely void of any nutrients that not even mold will grow on it


B. So loaded with preservatives that it can stay unspoiled for 16 months even after being opened and handled

…well, there’s not a whole lot else I can say. Me, I think it’s creepy and wrong.

I don’t see anything wrong with foods that stay unspoiled for 16 months, no. Our immune systems aren’t that great w/o scientific intervention and people used to die of minor infections all the time before antibiotics. The same applies to food, we use science to fight the cellular growth of threats. Unless preservatives show themselves to be unhealthy in some serious way I think its great that something that would spoil in a week lasts 16 months.

I think I understand your point, and I’d agree that the “it just ain’t natural” reaction (with sincere apologies to Zsofia and Jadis, who I realize are probably joking as shorthand for reasonable discussion) might not be strictly reasonable. But the reasonable version of this argument is that anything so inimical to life that it prevents something as robust as basic bread mold for sixteen months might also affect a) humans, directly, or b) humans, indirectly, by preventing life forms humans need, like intestinal flora.

There’s a fairly strong historical pattern in the last 50 or 60 years: Chemical X is discovered, developed, marketed, and sold as “Kills That Pesky Thing, But It’s Perfectly Safe for You!!,” but it turns out years later that it wasn’t so safe after all. Much media attention (but no penises) ensues, leaving the general impression that Stuff That Kills Any Life Form Is Bad for You. (Including antibiotics—lots of stories in the last few years about how they’ve been overused and misused, leading to antibiotic-resistant strains.) Would you agree?

BTW, Europe (in general, and IANAEuropean) has taken the “we won’t allow it until it’s proven SAFE” approach to certifying foodstuffs, food additives, agricultural products, etc. whereas the US has taken the “we won’t ban it until it’s proven HARMFUL” approach. Which, given history, seems somewhat more prudent to me, if less conducive to a free market.

I spent awhile studying nutrition (a few decades agos :eek: ). But rather than study the popular literature or latest diet fad, my main sources of information were a 1944 edition of the Chemical Rubber Corporation’s (CRC) Handbook of Chemistry and Physics (still one of my favorite reference books), and a book published by the University of Idaho Press entitled Nutrition and Mental Health.

The first book was a little thin on info, but it was interesting as to how vitamins were seen in the 1940’s.
The second was a Master’s Thesis and it was extremely dry, detailed, and difficult to read, but it was hugely informative. The first half of the book was a detailed description of every vitamin, nutrient and amino acid involved in human nutrition. It included specific information on the action of each chemical in the body, how and where it was used, stored and excreted. Diseases and symptoms caused by deficiencies and overdoses, etc. The second half dealt with the role of nutrition in mental health (hence the title) andwas similarly detailed.

One of the important things I picked up from that book was that vitamins work best when taken in combination. Taking doses of single vitamins is not as effective. Processing strips most of the vitamins from foods. Adding back a few of the important ones simply helps prevent nutritional diseases like beri-beri, rickets and scurvy. The nutritional content of processed foods doesn’t even approach that of fresh.

IMHO, the rise in obesity, diabetes, cancer et. al. over the past 50 years is directly linked to the prevalence of processed foodstuffs in the American diet. The MDR (Minimum Daily Requirement) listed on the nutrition labels is not the minimum amount required for good health, it is the minimum amount required to prevent nutritional diseases. And, due to some battles between the FDA and the major food manufacturers, the numbers are a bit low in many nutritionists opinion.

Well, maybe preservatives aren’t so bad after all.

BUT, one thing the article illustrates is that bodily chemistry is a complex subject, and scientists are far from fully grasping how it works. It may be reasonable to argue that processed foods aren’t nearly as bad as the naysayers will have you believe, but this should not lead you to conclude that processed, even fortified, foods are all one needs for an adequately-nourised diet. Fresh foods contain many components that serve functions not yet well understood, and it would be folly to reject them (I’m not saying you are; I don’t know your diet) in favor of processed products.

My folks and I have decided to try eating more natural foods with lots of spices and herbs. Despite the spice factor, our stomachs are not upset like they used to be when we ate frozen meals, deli meats, etc.

Processed foods don’t even appeal to me anymore.