Processed foods are foods that have been transformed or altered from their original form chemically or physically. From this simple definition we get to know that most of the foods we consume are processed.
Not all processed foods are bad. In fact food processing make some food safe for consumption as in the case of milk that requires pasteurization to rid of harmful bacteria.
Some other food needs processing to enable access such as pressing seeds to make oil.
Cooked foods are also processed foods!
Believe it or not, cooked foods are categorised under processed foods. The pros and cons of cooking includes nutrient loss, nutrient availability for absorption, an increase in the nutritional content of some foods, death of harmful organism making food safer, preserving and improving the aesthetics of some foods. (1)
Starchy foods like yam, potatoes, beans and corn can be digested only after cooking. The digestibility of protein in cooked eggs is 180% more than the protein in raw eggs.
Water soluble vitamins (Vitamin C and the B Vitamins), fat soluble vitamins (vitamin A, D, E & K) and minerals (potassium, magnesium, calcium and sodium) can be lost during the process of cooking.
Most of the vitamins in vegetables are lost during boiling. But if the water is consumed, 100% of the minerals and 70-90% of the B vitamins are retained (2)
Since there is no perfect cooking method that retains all nutrient, it’s important to select the best cooking method to maximise nutrient. Like cooking for shorter periods, lower temperature and minimal water as the case maybe.
All that been said. I’ll bet when your teacher or mother advised you to stay away from processed food, they weren’t talking cooked foods but rather commercially processed foods.
For the purpose of this post, here onward I refer to commercially processed foods when you see processed foods.
Apparently not all processed food are inherently bad for you. Aside the added sugar and salt, some commercially processed foods contains serious chemical substances like artificial flavours, colours, enriching nutrients and preservatives. These are flat bad for you.
Subjecting your diet to consuming these kind of foods is surrendering your health in the long run to sickness and being fat or both.
What Are Your Fav Processed Foods
1. Processed Meat
Meat may be classified as healthy. But opting for processed meat like sausages, cured meat, beef jerky, bacon, hot dogs, salami, canned meat, corned beef, smoked meat and meat based sauces are generally considered bad (3).
Actually eating those is a big NO! Studies has shown the link between eating processed meat to a plethora of health issues like:
- high blood pressure (4, 5),
- heart disease (6, 7),
- colorectal cancer (8, 9, 10, 11, 12)
- Gastric oesophageal cancer (13)
It’s important to note that these studies on processed meat consumption in humans are observational in nature. They show the connection between processed meat consumption with the likelihood of developing these disease rather than the fact that they actually cause them.
Why are processed meat not so good?
I am always glad when you ask such great questions!
One thing is certain, processed meat sure contain chemicals that increase the risk of chronic disease. Some of these chemicals include:
Nitrite/nitrate serves as a preservative that slows down rancidity by suppressing fat oxidation. It helps maintain the red/pink colour of meat, prevent bacterial growth and improve flavour.
Nitrite from processed meat on consumption can be converted to nitrosamine which has been proven to increase the risk of stomach and colon cancer (14, 15).
But wait a minute….
Nitrate/Nitrite occur naturally in some vegetables also
From my further research, culinary oriented articles made clear that some vegetable such as cabbage, carrots, beets and spinach contain sodium nitrate.
The level of nitrate/nitrite in vegetable is influenced by the level of nitrogen in the soil and from fertilizers. In fact the concentration of nitrate/nitrite is far more in vegetables than in processed meat.
Let’s be clear on one thing, nitrite and nitrate do not in any way have cancer causing potentials. They are actually produced by the body. They function like antimicrobial agent against salmonella in the digestive system.
How Does Dietary Nitrate/Nitrite Differ from Those in Processed Meat
I’m glad you asked!
The difference between the nitrite in processed meat and vegetable is the fact that nitrites in the former when consumed combines with proteins called amines to form nitrosamines which is a potential cancer causing agent.
On the other hand, Vegetables contain antioxidants (ascorbic acid) that prevents the formation of nitrosamine.
Instead the nitrate/nitrite turn into Nitric Oxide an important signalling molecule that makes blood vessel dilate and reduces blood pressure (25). Knowing that elevated pressure can lead to heart disease, the importance of this cannot be over stated.
Dietary Nitrate/nitrite can be used to increase energy level by upping the efficiency of the part of the cell that produces energy; the mitochondria. This ability is harnessed during high intensity exercise to enhance physical performance (26).
In processed meat, nitrosamines are formed when exposed to high heat (130 degree) such as in the case of grilling or frying (27).
But you love your bacon
If you truly think you cannot survive without your beloved bacon, you can sought high quality nitrite free bacon not those drenched with celery salt and the likes that also contains nitrate. Similarly you can chose to fry your bacon in low heat for a long period of time, this can reduce the nitrosamines production.
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAHs)
PAH is a pollutant that is formed during incomplete combustion of organic materials.
Smoking is one of the oldest method of processing meat, often in combination with salting and drying. This process leads to the formation of potentially harmful chemical such as the PAHs (16, 18).
PAHs are formed when flames and smoke during an open grill session arises from drippings of the fat and juice of meat. The smoke contains the PAHs which sticks to the meat.
PAHs are toxic with mutagenic and/or carcinogenic properties (17) and studies have proved this (28)
Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs)
These are chemicals formed when meat like beef, pork, poultry and even fish is cooked using high temperature methods like deep frying and grilling (31). HCAs are proven mutagens and can increase the risk of colon, breast and prostate cancer (32, 33 and 34)
HCAs are formed when the building block of protein (called amino acids), a substance in muscle (called creastine) and sugars react in high temperature.
It’s even more surprising to know that well-done and fried chicken or steak have higher concentration of HCAs
You know what, with all these craziness that comes with meat consumption, I now understand to a greater level why some decide to escape this drama by staying entirely from meat. I probably would in the nearest future.
Sodium chloride (table salt)
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended a daily intake of salt to be nothing more than a teaspoon (2,300milligram) or less than 1,500milligram if above 50 years. Most processed meat are laden with sodium chloride.
Table salt are important in maintaining proper fluid balance in the body. When in excess, it has been attributed to the development of various health issues like:
High blood pressure
Blood pressure is the force with which the heart pumps blood against the artery wall. If the blood pressure remain elevated over a long period of time, the tissue that makes the wall of the artery becomes stretched beyond its usual limit. This in turn can lead to increased risk of health complication like blood cloth, vascular weakening, stress on the circulatory system (20, 21)
some observational studies has shown that diet high in salt can lead to the growth of H pylori a bacterium that over time causes stomach ulcer which is a precursor for stomach cancer.(22, 23)
Others includes: Heart disease (24) and Kidney stone (20)
Other concerning chemicals found in processed meat includes:
- o hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- dextrose corn syrup
- hydrolyzed milk protein
- modified starch
- sodium nitrite
- ascorbic acid
If the mare sight of these don’t scare you, I wonder what would. Like what are those!!!!!!
Processed meat are horrible for your health no doubt but an occasional bite is not bad as far as it doesn’t make up a chunk of your diet. Like I always say, moderation is key
Refined white flour
White flour is made from wheat. The process involves removing the nutrient dense germ and the fibre bran leaving behind the endosperm which is nothing but starch. White flour is absolutely void of fibre and nutrient.
This finely ground powder is used for culinary activities like baking. Baking those beloved cakes, cookies, pie crust, pancakes and many other high carb junk foods.
Your love for these junk food don’t stop the fact that they contribute to obesity plus other health issues.
Why is flour bad for you?
They are void of important vitamin and minerals
Whole wheat are actually nutrient dense containing tonnes of vitamins and minerals that are good for the body. White flour undergoes heavy processing that rids it of this goodness. 97% of the fibre is lost so is 76% of the vitamin.
White flour is nutritionally USELESS if you ask me. It becomes alarming if your diet revolves around white flour derived foods. You may just be starving your cells without actually feeling starved. Except when of cause the health issues begin to creep in. nutrient deficiency has been linked to a plethora of health conditions.
But you say some flour are enriched
Enrichment is the process of adding nutrient to the flour. That must be good right? I don’t think so.
Iron is one nutrient added in enriched flour. Bad news is that this nutrient is actually toxic. It is metallic and is not bioavailable to humans, meaning it cannot be absorbed within the body. It is just not made to be consumed in the very first place
- They have been Bleached
- Benzoyl peroxide
- Calcium peroxide
- Nitrogen dioxide
- Chlorine dioxide
- Use of chemical Additives
- Emulsifiers: Needed to strengthen dough and make texture consistent. Such as lecithin,s odium stearoyl lactylase (SSL), diglycerides, sucrose ester of fatty acids, polysorbate, carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC), sodium alginate, to mention a few.
- Dough conditioner like diacetyl tartaric acid, calcium stearoyl-2-lactylate, calcium carbonate and mono calcium phosphate
- Oxidizing agents: helps in gluten development and ultimately makes for a better dough ascorbic acid (during mixing, ascorbic acid converts into its oxidizing form, dehydroascorbic acid (DHAA).), azodicarbinamide(E927), potassium iodate.
- Pesticide Residue
- Gluten Intolerance
- Glutenin and gliadin found in wheat
- Secalin found in rye
- Horden found in barley
To think that even the food we consume can get bleached.
The entire aim of bleaching is to make the flour look whiter and brighter. Some chemical agent used to achieve this includes:
The use of chlorine and bromate has been banned because of their carcinogenic properties.
There are some chemicals approved by food regulatory bodies to be included in flour but they are hardly in the ingredient list of flour. Some of these chemical include
On a deeper thought, how many of these strange unregulated chemicals do you consume every day?
The wheat of old is definitely not the wheat of now. The indiscretion when it comes to Modern day farming involves the use of chemical fertilizers on the soil, fungicide and pesticide on the seeds before they are even planted.
More pesticides are added as the wheat grows. These pesticides are known carcinogens as well as xenoestrogen. Xenoestrogen are oestrogen mimicking chemicals that have been linked to hormone-related illnesses and cancer e.g. breast cancer. This chemical contribute to the reason why girls and boys enter puberty at earlier ages. (38)
Synthetic hormones are also added to increase yield e.g. cycocel
These chemical abuse don’t stop at cultivation. During storage, more chemical preservatives are poured on the grains to protect them from moth and other insects e.g. chloropyrifos-methyl, diatomaceous eath, cy-fluthrin(ref 37)
With this heavy load of chemical pesticides, I’m most certain that even the finished product will have significantly harmful amounts remaining.
Gluten is a composite of proteins, meaning it’s made up of different proteins. Examples of these proteins are:
Gluten is also found in spelt and kanut.
As the name implies gluten intolerance simply means your body cannot tolerate gluten. What’s most concerning is the fact that because the symptoms of this intolerance may be either silent or atypical, most people are walking around undiagnosed.
Gluten intolerance may be divided into 3 categories:
- Celiac disease (the most severe)
- Non celiac gluten sensitivity
- Wheat allergy
These may be different in terms of their reaction in the body. Bottom line is they are triggered by gluten.
- Abdominal pain and cramp
- Diarrhoea and constipation
- Iron deficiency (Anaemia)
- Joint and muscle pain
- Brittle nail
- Unexplained weight loss
- Canker sore or mouth ulcers
- Hair loss(alopecia)
- Headache and migraine
- Vitamin and mineral deficiency
An undiagnosed gluten intolerance means ignorance. And a continues consumption of this allergen puts you at risk of autoimmune disease and other disease like sclerosis, ataxia and diabetes (35, 36)
Some gluten free grains includes quinoa, millet, corn, rice. They are actually great alternatives.
Here goes one of my key points: self-observation. It’s important learn to be sensitive to the way your body speaks and learn to listen to it. If you have any of the above symptoms majorly after a gluten diet, sick medical help
List of nutrients lost during wheat processing (38)
- Thiamine (B1) 77%
- Riboflavin (B2) 80%
- Pyridoxine (B6) 72%
- Niacin 81%
- Pantothenic acid 50%
- Vitamin E 86%
- Calcium 60%
- Phosphorus 71%
- Magnesium 84%
- Potassium 77%
- Sodium 78%
- Chromium 40%
- Manganese 86%
- Iron 76%
- Cobalt 89%
- Zinc 78%
- Copper 68%
- Selenium 16%
- Molybdenum 48%
I love carbs. But I believe we should get good carbs from unrefined sources like fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds and nut. Not from something that has been processed, bleached and treated with synthetic nutrient that poses a rainbow of risk.
Like I earlier stated, not all processed foods are inherently bad. But most are bathed with chemicals and are just flat not worth the health risk.
You may not have to necessarily go cold turkey on your fav processed foods but you must strive to have healthy meals every day.
Phew! Not a complete information but certainly more than e nough for one post.
Continue to embrace knowledge!