Is Eating Processed Food REALLY Bad for Me?

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When I started researching the dangers of processed food, I was fully prepared to bring the hammer down on Big Mayo.

I wanted to write a lead that went something like, “The latest research shows that processed food is the single leading cause of death and illness in America, its empty calories largely responsible for the startling rise in obesity and public flannel pajama bottoms, which today are the most visible signs of a wretched diet that lines the pockets of greedhead food manufacturing executives whose lust for profit makes Donald Trump look like Jean Valjean.”

Couldn’t do it.

I could not write about processed food without acknowledging that “processed food” as we talk about it today gets a bad rap.

Yes, I realize that sentence will have folks who claim that most degenerative diseases can be controlled simply by avoiding processed food aiming their forks and knives at me. But much of the discussion about “processed food” during the last few years has been muddled at best — and at worst dishonest. Anyone who comes out and broadly asserts that, “processed food is bad,” or “processed food causes [insert disease here]” is either being unclear or pushing an agenda.

This dispatch from the BBC is typical: “Processed foods are to blame for the sharp rise in obesity levels and chronic disease around the globe, according to the World Health Organization.” But that doesn’t capture the entire picture. Processed food is also responsible for sustaining a global population of 7 billion people. And technically speaking, almost all food is processed at some point. Even the world’s remaining indigenous tribes still process their food (consider grinding corn into cornmeal), which means our ancient ancestors probably did as well. Do you enjoy organic tofu? It didn’t come out of the ground that way. It was processed.

When you’re talking about “processed food,” you’re talking about a huge category. The average grocery store alone sells more than 40,000 items. Most of the interior aisles at the grocery store are stocked entirely with processed foods.

Processed food is simply too diverse an array of items to be accurately subjected to sweeping conclusions. The problem is that the good gets lumped in with the bad.

Saying that processed food is bad because it is high in sodium or has questionable preservatives is like saying the entire human race is bad because some people invade Poland or don’t pick up after their dogs.

“The ingredients list is the last bastion of hope for the health-conscious consumer.”

Mira Calton, author of “Rich Food Poor Food"

Don't Judge a Bean by Its Cover

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Purdue University nutrition science professor Heather Eicher-Miller conducted an interesting study. She and her team set out to discover whether the amount of processing a food is subjected to affects that food’s nutrient and energy contribution. They broke down food processing into five categories: minimally processed, processed for preservation, processed with a mixture of combined ingredients, processed ready-to-eat foods and prepared foods/meal.

The researchers used the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as their baseline. The guidelines recommend that Americans reduce their intake of saturated fat, sugars, cholesterol and sodium, and increase their dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium and potassium.

Eicher-Miller and her team found that none of the processed food categories were consistently “healthy” or “unhealthy.”

“What we found was that the level of processing was really a minor determinant of the nutrient and energy contribution,” Eicher-Miller said. “Maybe the most important advice for consumers coming out of this study is that we shouldn’t let the level of processing define what we think about a particular food.”

Registered dietician Pamela Nisevich Bede said that she considers healthy processed food another option in a well-balanced diet.

“I think in some instances processed foods really fit into the diet,” Nisevich Bede said, “for example, canned vegetables.” She explained, “If you get a salt-free canned vegetable that is processed very close to the field, it’s got nutrient depth. It’s not high in calories. Sometimes there’s not a lot of additives in it. Same goes for frozen food. For a lot of consumers those items are less expensive than what you might call the regular produce.”

If this all sounds obvious, yeah -- it’s obvious -- but it needs to be said. When processed food is demonized, customers might be less likely to include good processed foods in their diets even though the particular food in question is a healthy and affordable option.

“We really need to consider each food individually,” Eicher-Miller said, “and read the nutrition label to inform our decision about whether a particular food is a good choice.”

How to Shop for Food

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Jayson and Mira Calton, authors of “Rich Food Poor Food: The Ultimate Grocery Purchasing System,” offer a three-step process for buying processed food at the grocery store.

STEP 1: IGNORE THE BILLBOARD The billboard is the front of the food package. The Caltons are too polite to call some billboards “a den of lies,” but I’m not. Some billboards are a den of lies.

“Most of the words on those labels never mean what we think they mean,” Mira Calton said. “The word ‘natural’ currently outsells the word ‘organic’ by 2-1, so you see it on labels. But that ‘natural’ food could still have hormones, pesticides, antibiotics, sewage sludge, genetic engineering, modified food starch. High fructose corn syrup is ‘natural.’ ”

STEP 2: IGNORE THE NUTRITION FACTS This is the part of the label that tells you how much sodium or how many carbs are in each serving. “Unless you’re counting something very specific, such as calories or carbs, it’s not very helpful,” said Calton.

STEP 3: READ THE INGREDIENTS “The ingredients list is the last bastion of hope for the health-conscious consumer,” Calton said. This is where you find out what you’re putting into your body, what’s in the product and how much it’s been processed.

The Caltons cite an example in their book. There is a certain potato chip maker that offers a “baked” version of its chips. The baked chip billboard touts no MSG and no preservatives, and from its packaging it looks like you’d expect to find the Garden of Eden inside the bag. But the ingredients reveal that the baked chips include additives and preservatives not in the original classic version. So, are the baked chips really the healthier option?

The Caltons’ book -- and other books like it -- offer a list of ingredients to avoid because they’re unhealthy or have been banned in other countries.

This all sounds like typical corporate villainy, right? As author Michael Moss noted in "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us," published in February 2013, food companies trick us into buying food by making it delicious.

Here’s something that won’t sell a lot of books, but is just as true: The market is responding to customer demand for foods that are truly healthy. “One thing the food industry is doing pretty well is it offers a wide variety of choices,” Eicher-Miller said.

Susan Rodder of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center's Preventive Cardiology Program recently issued a statement that says she’s seeing trends indicating that food companies are responding to a rising demand for healthier options by reducing the number of added ingredients, minimizing trans fats, adding more whole grains and reducing sodium content.

During the two years when the Caltons were writing “Rich Food Poor Food,” they had to revise a number of their examples. During the years between their start on the book and its publication, some of the companies that had been manufacturing the most evil foods the Caltons’ planned to mention had made the switch to healthier ingredients.

A newly formed group called the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, whose membership includes 16 food and drink companies, recently pledged to cut 1.5 trillion calories from America’s diet by 2015. Will this campaign finally get Americans into their skinny jeans? No one knows, but the pledge shows that food companies are aware that their products are popular with people who consume them in unhealthy quantities, and these companies have taken the bold step of addressing the issue publicly.

The Caltons -- who are critical of many food manufacturers -- are optimistic about your shopping future. They cite the surging number of small companies selling healthy foods, the popularity of health-focused grocery chains such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, and large manufacturers’ ability to adapt to what consumers want.

Still, you need to keep an eye on Big Mayo.

Let's Call Them What They Are

Certain processed foods are unhealthy. Certain ones. I wish there was a better term for them. Let’s call them Unhealthy Processed Foods or UPFs. Hey, everyone involved in food science and nutrition, can we start doing this? UPFs — let’s call them this from now on. Thanks. Actually, everyone out there reading, let’s make this happen. Tweet any pictures of UPFs you encounter out there to @LIVESTRONG_COM with the hashtag #UPF.

UPFs are foods that are high in calories or contain too much sodium, sugar, trans fats and unrecognizable ingredients that sound like something Jack Bauer had to keep from being released into the atmosphere on “24.”

Some studies link "processed foods" to chronic disease, high blood pressure, carcinogens and lower IQs in children. That's why it's up to adults to help kids make healthy choices. At a fitness conference, Nisevich Bede told me that a kid came up to her and said, “I need a lot of calories. Why can’t I just get them from chocolate chip cookies? A calorie is a calorie.” She told the kid that his colon wants better foods. His heart wants better foods. He cannot survive on just processed junk.

When people eat junk food, Nisevich Bede said, they miss an opportunity to fuel up with the good foods their bodies need. “If you’re eating a sandwich with white bread (which I equate to a marshmallow-type fluff), you just missed an opportunity to make that sandwich with a whole grain that has extra vitamins and extra fiber, and which won’t wreak havoc as much on your cholesterol and blood sugar levels.”

Oh damn you, Big White Bread.