Why Is Processed Food Bad?

'Kerrygold butter' photo (c) 2009, Nick Saltmarsh - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
A friend was wondering whether it was bad to eat soy patties for lunch every day. This led to a discussion of ingredient lists on packages and concerns about processed food. You hear it all the time—heck, I say it here all the time: Home-cooked foods beat prepared or convenience foods any day of the week.

But why, my friend wanted to know, are processed foods bad? Can’t we just check the list of ingredients? If there are too many chemicals that we’ve never heard of, we are wary. But maybe if the ingredients listed on a label are all natural, the processing isn’t such a big deal.

Or is it?

My friend pointed out, correctly, that processing is often a good thing:

  • Cooking makes foods tasty and easier to digest.
  • Processing, like canning or drying, helps foods last longer.
  • Processing can eliminate pathogenic bacteria, as when milk is pasteurized.

So a certain amount of processing can work in our favor, although these benefits may also come with lower nutritional value. Still, the real problem is when foods get over-processed.

Here are some things that might affect your convenience food before it gets to your plate:

  • Ingredients we don’t want. Manufacturers add emulsifiers and starches for improving texture, preservatives to keep food fresh longer, and flavors, colors, sodium, mono-sodium glutamate, and sugars to make food more palatable to the average consumer.
  • Low-quality ingredients. The label is only as specific as the law required by your country. The ingredients might say corn, but does that mean corn starch or cornmeal? Or maybe kernels? They are not equally healthy. Are the ingredients organic? What conditions were they grown in? How old are they?
  • Using the least healthy part of the natural product. A classic example is apple juice concentrate, which contains almost pure sugar. Even though it’s natural. You’re getting sugar from a large number of apples, but without the fiber and the anti-oxidants.
  • Just because an ingredient is at the end of the list doesn’t mean it’s not going to impact  your health. Some ingredients can cause harm even in small quantities. And the product must contain a minimum amount of an ingredient for it to appear on the label, so you could be eating unpleasant things without realizing. Ask any mother of a child with life-threatening allergies how much she relies on package labels.
  • Toxic chemicals might be used in the manufacturing process, like enzymes that make foods softer or remove bitterness. But since they’re not officially ingredients, they won’t appear on the list.
  • Packaging.  A few years ago a toxic chemical, BPA, was found in certain plastics. These plastics were (and still are, in some cases), used in baby bottles and canned foods. The BPA leaches into the food, but you’ll never find it listed.
  • Vitamin and mineral loss.Water-soluble vitamins are not retained in fruits and vegetable even after minimal processing. Heck, once you slice a tomato it starts to lose Vitamin C.Vitamins, minerals and fiber are removed from whole grains in processing so they will last longer. Almost all processed foods contain white flour, which has a long shelf life. The company might add some of the vitamins and minerals back into the food in another form (think children’s cereals), but your body doesn’t absorb them as well.
  • Oils and fats. Since good fats are expensive processed foods contain cheap, unhealthy oils, often in large quantities. Here the label will give you a clue—but you can only decide whether you want to buy the product or not. At home you can choose the type of oil and how much goes in it.
  • Heating. Processed foods are usually exposed to high temperatures. High cooking temperatures create AGE’s, or advanced glucation end products. These toxic glucose byproducts are associated with high blood sugar and diabetes. They are found in most heated foods and, in great excess, in commercial infant formulas because cow’s milk must be heated at extreme temperatures to make it edible for babies. Reducing the amounts of processed and grilled foods also reduced the level of AGE’s in the blood.
  • Price. You pay for convenience. Even if you can get food for less than it costs you to make at home, you end up with lower quality ingredients, unnecessary additives, and unknown processing methods.
  • Environmental Impact. Processing uses precious water and fuel and creates pollution.

A lot of these concerns also apply to foods we buy in their natural state, to prepare at home. However, it’s much easier to research one ingredient than those from a long list, especially when you can examine the food for yourself. And even if you cook with white flour and soy oil, you still avoid many of the “extras” in convenience foods.

The main concern of a food manufacturer is profit. So it will aim for a product with cheap ingredients, a uniform taste that appeals to many (sugar/salt/msg), and long shelf life (processed foods last longer than fresh, even without the added preservatives).

As for labels, food producers only share whatever makes them look good. Whether the food is healthy or not interests them only as far as their marketing department. It’s naïve to assume that a food is healthy because only healthy ingredients are listed.

You may also enjoy:

Barriers to Home Cooking 

Healthy Last-Minute Dinners

The Best Techniques for Knowing When Food Is Cooked

Share

Related posts:

Comments

  1. Thank you for giving us so much food for thought. I love the thorough way that you cover this and other subjects on how to “manage” food. Your website manager is so perfect for what you do.
    You brought up so many considerations that I would not have thought of.
    One question on your last paragraph: Aren’t food manufacturers required by law to list all the ingredients in the product? (though I realize that some may be used, as you pointed out, that are not “officially” ingredients)

    • Faye, thank you so much for your flattering comment. Here is what the FDA says about your question:
      Is it necessary to declare trace ingredients?
      Answer: It depends on whether the trace ingredient is present in a significant amount and has a function in the finished food. If a substance is an incidental additive and has no function or technical effect in the finished product, then it need not be declared on the label. An incidental additive is usually present because it is an ingredient of another ingredient. Sulfites are considered to be incidental only if present at less than 10 ppm. 21 CFR 101.100(a)(3)

  2. Thanks, Hannah. It’s really good that you wrote the pros and cons of processed foods. It’s so easy to dismiss them as “bad” and sometimes I tend to, but then I realize that even traditionally made tofu and soy milk, which I like, are processed foods.

    Also, I meant to write your website’s name “cooking manager” is so perfect for what you do.

  3. Thank you for another excellent article.

    Something most people do not know about this article’s topic is manufactures can list an ingredient under names people will probably not recognize. Manufacturers do this to hide ingredients customers might find objectionable, while meeting ingredient-list legal disclosure requirements.

    For example, many people prefer to eat food that is free of MSG (monosodium glutamate). Unknown to most, other legitimate names for MSG are “Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein”, and “s Sodium 2-Aminopentanedioate”. Also, there are a large number of ingredients that can be listed as “Natural Flavoring”. What exactly does that mean? I find the designation “Natural Flavoring” to be so ambiguous as to be completely meaningless. Since a certain amount of rat feces is allowed to be present in some foods, I often wonder if that is what is really being indicated by the term “Natural Flavoring”.

    Because of the myriad of food additives, and multiple legitimate names for each additive, it is quite challenging and potentially time consuming to discover what a food truly has in it. I firmly believe one can not truly know what is in a food without researching what all the unfamiliar ingredients really are, and understanding the technical vocabulary used to characterize food ingredients.

    Even then, it is frequently impossible to discover if an ingredient is truly safe. An ingredient may be listed as safe by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Yet, can we really trust the statements of the FDA when most of the FDA’s funding comes from fees paid by companies seeking FDA approval for their product? Think about the conflict of interest here. The FDA would not have enough funding to function if they did not frequently grant application approvals to companies seeking legal right to sell their product(s) in the USA; and, companies would not pay the exorbitant fees demanded by the FDA to process applications if companies did not justifiably have reasonable belief their application would be approved. Can we really trust the FDA to protect us from dangerous chemicals when they continue to permit drugs to be sold that have been proven in post-market analysis to be fatal when used as directed to thousands and thousands of people (like Advair and Zyrtec)? In many cases I did research on a food additive and found no source other than the FDA that could indicate if an additive was safe, so the ingredient’s safety remained a mystery. It is very frustrating.

    We can do something to help fix this problem: vote with you wallet by consistently buying ONLY products that contain the shortest ingredient list possible, where each in ingredient could be found in food made 300 years ago. Buy products with ingredient lists that look like “cream, milk, and salt.” or (my favorite) “orange juice.” A desirable side-effect of this strategy is a lower ingredient count results in less undeclared toxic contents in food like the enzymes referred to in the article above. If enough people did this long enough, manufactures would offer healthier products because they can only make profit if they can sell their product(s). An example that customers can change manufactures’ behavior is about milk. It used to be that nearly all milk in the USA was produced by cows that had been injected with the hormone rBST (also called BGH). Consumers put pressure on manufactures by buying more and more milk produced by rBST-free cows and less milk produced by cows injected with rBST. Now, most milk available in the USA is produced by rBST-free cows even if the label on the carton does not indicate it.

    On a side note: everyone should realize and believe the word “organic” is used as a marketing term for food, and is absolutely not an indicator that a food is safe or healthy. I saw many foods labeled as organic that have chemicals in them known to be dangerous, and many foods that contained ingredients that simply should not be in food like xanthan gum (the primary ingredient in chewing gum), zathan gum, and carageenan gum.

Speak Your Mind

*

CommentLuv badge