The Trouble with Ultra-Processed Foods

You may have heard that avoiding processed foods is a better choice for your health. But what exactly are processed foods, and what’s wrong with them?

What exactly is ultra-processed food?

Processing food can include everything done to the foods we eat to get them ready for the table. There’s a continuum of levels of processing, though. It hasn’t been processed if you pick a tomato from your garden and bite into it. Once you cook it, it has been processed just a little bit. If you buy a can of tomatoes made with tomatoes, salt, citric acid, and calcium chloride, then it is minimally processed. You could can them in your home, and while you might not add calcium chloride, you can if you want to — it’s a type of salt more often used for pickling, and you can buy it in the grocery store. 

Buy a jar of marinara sauce, which will include tomatoes, citric acid, calcium chloride, and salt. The marinara sauce will also often contain sugar, oil, and seasonings. You can still make it at home, but it’s still considered processed food. 

Move on to tomato-flavored crackers, and you will begin to see a difference. One brand we checked had brown rice flour as the first ingredient and sugar as the second ingredient. It then listed two more kinds of flour, canola oil, sesame seeds, potato starch, dehydrated tomato, two more kinds of grains, onion and tomato powders, salt, herbs, and spices. This is highly-processed food; you would have to make a real effort to reproduce it at home.

Tomato-flavored potato chips take it another step, listing their ingredients as potatoes, vegetable oil, sugar, maltodextrin, monosodium glutamate, dextrose, tomato powder, onion powder, yeast extract, soy sauce powder, hydrolyzed soy protein, garlic powder, paprika, sucralose, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, and natural and artificial flavors. These are ultra-processed foods, and you would have a hard time creating these at home.

Items like Doritos (the first ultra-processed food), Beyond Meat patties, and Twinkies are ultra-processed foods. They don’t have much in common with a tomato from your garden, and you can’t really make them outside of a laboratory or factory.

What are the drawbacks of ultra-processed food?

Hyper-processed foods are highly engineered food products typically made from cheap ingredients such as refined sugars, flours, and vegetable oils. They usually contain artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. 

These foods are typically high in calories, sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. They are designed to be highly palatable and addictive, not to be nutritious or wholesome. Many types of breakfast cereals, for example, Kellogg’s Honey Smacks, Malt-O-Meal Golden Puffs, and Post Golden Crisp are more than half sugar. That makes them an exciting thing to eat. Manufacturers put a lot of effort into making their processed foods delicious and fun to eat…but not satisfying. They are designed to make it easy to eat a lot of and are hard to stop eating. The result can be weight gain and the health problems associated with obesity. 

Ultra-processed foods are usually low in essential nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals because the processing methods used to make them can strip them of their natural nutritional value. For example, refining grains to make white flour removes the bran and germ, which are the parts of the grain that contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Similarly, processing fruits and vegetables into juice can remove the fiber and other nutrients present in the whole fruit or vegetable. When people eat many hyper-processed foods, these non-nutritious foods tend to replace more nutritious foods. After all, if you’ve just eaten a couple of bowls of Honey Smacks, you probably don’t have much desire to eat plain yogurt with unsweetened berries. Replacing unprocessed foods with highly processed food can lead to nutritional deficiencies.

Trust your gut

What’s more, hyper-processed foods can have negative effects on our gut microbiome. Our gut microbiome is a complex community of microorganisms that live in our digestive tract and play a crucial role in our health. However, consuming a diet high in hyper-processed foods can disrupt the balance of our gut microbiome, decreasing beneficial bacteria and increasing harmful bacteria. This can increase the risk of digestive disorders, such as inflammatory bowel disease, and other health problems, including obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Add all these factors up, and you won’t be surprised to hear that ultra-processed food can contribute to developing chronic diseases, including heart disease and cancer. 

We are seeing changes in the health of our population overall, which some experts associate with ultra-processed foods:

Time to change

According to the American College of Cardiology, 58% of the average American’s food intake is made up of ultra-processed food. 

If you rely on these tasty but less nutritious foods, it can take some time to get out of that habit. Your taste buds are used to very exciting foods with high salt, sugar, and fat levels. It will take time to reach the point where you get excited about the delicate flavor of cucumber or the subtle taste of herbs. Give it time — but don’t give up. Switching to unprocessed or less processed foods is one of the best things you can do for your health.