Poor nutrition is one of the leading causes of health- and economy-related burdens worldwide. Processed foods that contain high amounts of poor-quality fat, added sugar and salt, low amount of dietary fibers, and a negligible amount of beneficial nutrients are particularly bad for health, as higher consumption of such foods increases the risk of many diseases, as well as elevates the rate of all-cause mortality.
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What are processed foods?
To make a food product convenient-to-use, stable/durable, tasty, and attractive-looking, raw agricultural items are often subjected to various types of modifications, such as washing, cutting, cooking, canning, freezing, dehydrating, packaging, etc. Sometimes, different ingredients are added to increase the flavor and texture of food products (chemically processed).
To maintain a standard quality-control protocol, almost all the food products undergo some degree of processing before coming to the supermarket. Thus, it is important to know the difference between various types of processed foods before evaluating their effects on general health.
Types of processed foods
According to the NOVA food classification, there are four categories of processed food: unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed foods, and drink products.
Unprocessed foods include edible portions of plants and animals that are naturally available. For example, plant seeds, fruits, stems, roots, animal milk, eggs, etc.
Minimally processed foods undergo mild processing steps mainly for preservation purposes. The nutritional content of the food remains mostly unaltered.
Processed culinary ingredients are derived from both unprocessed and minimally processed foods that undergo various processing steps, such as pressing, grinding, refining, drying, milling, etc. The items include butter, oil, sugar, salt, whole grain flour, etc.
Processed foods are prepared from category 1 or 2 food products by adding extra ingredients, including salt, sugar, and fats. Some examples of processed foods include canned vegetables, canned meat, cheese, bread, etc. These are generally ready-to-eat food products.
Ultra-processed or highly-processed foods (soft drinks, chips, cookies, ready-to-use meals, and reconstituted meat items) are mostly formulated industrially from ingredients obtained from foods and additives.
In addition to sugar, salt, and fats, ultra-processed foods contain artificial color and flavor, preservatives, and alternative energy sources and undergo many processing steps. The final product lacks almost all the nutritional benefits of category 1 foods.
The main purpose of ultra-processing is to make branded, highly profitable, convenient, and attractive food items that can replace nearly all unprocessed or minimally processed food from everyday diet.
Is it unhealthy to consume processed foods?
In the present busy world where everyone is running out of time, some processed foods are the saviors. Processed foods that are fortified with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants can be beneficial in terms of providing essential nutrients in a person’s daily diet.
There are many instances of beneficial effects of processed or fortified foods. For example, baby foods fortified with iron and vitamin B12 can prevent anemia; milk containing vitamin D can prevent rickets; salt containing iodine can prevent goiter, and so no.
Despite having some beneficial ones, the majority of processed foods are detrimental for health as they contain a high amount of saturated fats, sugar, salt, and an unmatched amount of calories.
Several scientific studies have claimed that consumption of a high amount of processed food can increase the risk of cardiovascular disorder, metabolic disorders (obesity and diabetes), coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular diseases.
It has been found that ultra-processed foods affect metabolism and cardiovascular functioning by altering the satiety process and glycemic response of the body. Moreover, several substances that are formed during the ultra-processing of foods play vital roles in triggering the onset and progression of cardiometabolic disorders.
For example, acrylamide (a contaminant formed during the heat treatment of food) and acrolein (a compound formed during heating of fat products) can significantly increase the risk of cardiovascular disorders.
Some packaging materials (bisphenol A), as well as additives (glutamate, sulfite, and carrageenan), can also have adverse effects on cardiovascular health.
Another drawback of ultra-processed food is that it can indirectly affect cardiovascular system by reducing, if not completely replacing, the consumption of unprocessed or minimally processed foods, which are highly nutritious due to higher content of vitamins, minerals, dietary fibers, and other beneficial nutrients.
The list compiling detrimental side-effects of ultra-processed foods is ever-growing. A statistically significant correlation has been found between high intake of processed food and increased risk of cancer and irritable bowel syndrome.
Moreover, the consumption of specific ultra-processed foods such as sweetened beverages, processed meat, and red meat is found to be associated with a higher rate of mortality.
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According to the SUN prospective cohort study that includes 19,899 participants aged 20 – 91 years, a higher intake of ultra-processed food, which equivalents to more than 4 servings per day, is independently associated with 62% higher risk of all-cause mortality. Moreover, each additional serving of ultra-processed food has been found to increase the all-cause mortality risk by 18%.
Most importantly, children who consume a high amount of ultra-processed foods are more likely to develop dyslipidemia, obesity, and hypertension later in life. Similarly, studies have shown that the percentage of calories consumed by a pregnant woman from ultra-processed food can be used to predict gestational weight gain and infant body fat.