People label all unhealthy food as processed food, but it is essential to remember there are degrees of processing. For example, minimal processing helps remove inedible food parts while cleaning and preserving the nutritional content. Whole grain pasta and flours are excellent examples of healthy options that are minimally processed.
The foods people consider unhealthy and avoidable are ultra-processed; this does not include canned fruits and vegetables with added sugar and salt; however, these are not minimally processed either, and there are healthier alternatives. Ultra-processed foods require multiple steps and the inclusion of ingredients with unrecognizable names.
Ultra-processed foods often include preservatives, artificial flavoring and coloring, and emulsifiers to create a more appealing look and texture. Think of chips, soda, luncheon meats, frozen meals, and other packed snacks and baked goods.
The Problem With Ultra-Processed Foods and Drinks
Ultra-processed foods destroy the structure of the whole food. As a result, manufacturers and producers introduce ingredients that do not naturally exist in food. Instead, the chemicals and products are introduced to preserve edibility and increase shelf-life, ultimately improving corporate profitability.
When people talk about a food matrix, they discuss the natural structure of a food, including its vitamins and other nutrients. A producer destroys the original matrix and recreates a new structure more suitable to corporate and consumer interest by altering the food. Unfortunately, you can never get back the original nutritional integrity of the whole food.
Therefore, whole food will always be more nutritious than overly-processed food. For example, a person will receive more significant benefits from consuming high-fiber real food than a fiber supplement.
The Dangers of Ultra-Processed Foods
Like those found at fast-food chains and in snack food aisles, processed foods present significant health risks. Several studies have linked the regular consumption of ultra-processed foods to an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, vascular disease and stroke, and cancer. Other research suggests consuming a diet of primarily ultra-processed food results in shorter life expectancy.
Experts guess the reasoning is tied to the ingredients in these foods and the lack of nutritional value. In addition, chemical, artificial ingredients, and preservatives can affect the metabolism and the body's ability to digest and process foods.
The Solution for Positive Change
The body needs vitamins and minerals to survive and thrive. The best resource for these nutrients is through the consumption of whole and minimally processed foods. So while everyone likely has a favorite party snack or sugary indulgence, the objective should be to eliminate as many unhealthy foods as possible.
Elimination might be too strong a word because everyone needs flexibility. Restricting yourself too quickly from foods you love can be counterproductive. While a transition to a healthier diet is crucial, especially if you live on heavily processed foods, a gradual transition is more respondent to sustainable change.
Many foods require some level of processing. Your goal should be to consume more whole foods and foods that require minimal processing. The nutrition label is often the giveaway because ultra-processed foods will have multiple ingredients that sound more like chemicals than food. Changing your diet can help reduce the odds of future health complications.
How do you feel about processed foods, and have you recently cut any out of your life? Share your comment and story below.