Think Twice Before You Eat: The Dangers of Processed Foods

Do the dangers of processed foods ever cross your mind as you scan food labels, or do you tend to toss frozen dinner entrees and dessert cookies into your cart without a second thought?

There’s no denying the convenience that processed foods offer. However, making them a staple in your diet can have significant health impacts.

But just what occurs within your body when you consume these heavily processed foods daily?

This article exposes the often overlooked hazards hidden within everyday packaged food items.

Once you comprehend the dangerous effects of processed foods on your body, you’ll likely find yourself reaching for wholesome, unprocessed foods more frequently.

1. They are Rich in Chemical Additives

One of the biggest dangers of processed foods is the chemical additives used to preserve food and improve taste.

Processed foods contain preservatives like Butylated hydroxy anisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), flavour enhancers like Monosodium glutamate (MSG), and artificial colouring agents. While the FDA generally recognizes some of these chemicals as safe, research suggests potential health risks with long-term exposure.

For example, BHA and BHT are antioxidant preservatives that prevent rancidity and preserve shelf life. However, studies link these preservatives to cancer, hormonal effects, and hyperactivity in children.

Even small doses over time may have a cumulative impact. Other concerning additives include propylene glycol, a food thickener and stabilizer that may have neurological effects, and artificial colours like Red 40 and Yellow 5 that contain carcinogenic contaminants.

The health impact depends on an individual’s sensitivity, so limiting exposure to chemical additives is best.

2. They Have Artificial Flavors & Colours

Artificial flavours and colours are commonly added to processed foods to improve taste, appearance and shelf life. Some concerning artificial additives to watch out for include:

  • Artificial food colouring like Red 40, Yellow 5 and Blue 1
  • Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin and sucralose
  • MSG (monosodium glutamate)
  • Artificial preservatives like BHA, BHT, sodium benzoate and nitrites

Frequent consumption of these artificial additives may be associated with potential health risks. Artificial colours may provoke behavioural issues in children.

Some artificial sweeteners are linked to weight gain and metabolic disorders.

MSG can cause adverse reactions like headaches, nausea and dizziness in sensitive individuals.

Certain preservatives have been shown to alter gut bacteria and cause oxidative stress.

3. Grains Are Highly Processed

Grains like rice, wheat and oats are often processed in ways that strip out beneficial fibre, vitamins and minerals.

White bread, white rice and many breakfast cereals have the nutrient-rich outer bran and germ removed, leaving only the starchy endosperm.

Without the fibre and nutrients, highly processed grains are easily digested and absorbed into the blood, causing rapid spikes in blood sugar levels. Over time, eating a lot of refined grains can increase one’s risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even certain cancers.

Aim to replace refined grains like white bread and white rice with whole grain alternatives whenever possible. Look for terms like “100% whole wheat” or “whole grain” on product labels. Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, oats and whole wheat bread retain more nutritional value and won’t drive up blood sugar as quickly.

Glycemic Index 101: Mastering Effective Carbohydrates for Blood Sugar Control

4. Have High Levels of Added Sugars

Processed foods often contain large amounts of added sugars to improve taste.

Some common names for added sugars include high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, brown sugar, corn sweetener, sucrose, glucose, dextrose, and more.

The World Health Organization recommends limiting added sugar intake to no more than 10% of total daily calories. However, the average person may consume a whopping 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day, adding up to 270 calories. This sugar overload places consumers at higher risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and fatty liver disease.

According to a 15-year study on over 31,000 adults, people who consumed 17-21% of daily calories from added sugar were 38% more likely to die from cardiovascular disease.

Consumers can significantly reduce their added sugar intake by reading nutrition labels closely and limiting high-sugar processed foods.

This will lower their risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses linked to excessive sugar consumption.

5. Process Foods Rich in Saturated & Trans Fats

Many processed foods contain saturated fats and trans fats, which can raise cholesterol levels and increase your risk for heart disease and stroke.

Saturated fat is found mainly in fatty meats, poultry skin, butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream, palm and coconut oils.

The process called hydrogenation turns liquid oils into solid fats like shortening and hard-stick margarine, creating trans fats.  Baked goods, snacks, fried foods and margarine often contain trans fats.

Eating foods high in saturated fat and trans fat increases levels of bad LDL cholesterol and can lead to atherosclerosis, where plaque builds up in the arteries over time. This narrows the arteries and makes them less flexible, reducing blood flow.

Reducing saturated fat and eliminating trans fat is key to improving cholesterol levels and heart health. Processed foods are often high in unhealthy fats – beware of the ingredient list.

6. They Have High Sodium Content

A diet high in sodium has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease.

An average person may consume over 3,400 mg of sodium per day, well above the recommended limits. The American Heart Association advises no more than 2,300 mg daily for most adults. For people with high blood pressure, the limit is even lower at 1,500 mg per day.

Many processed and packaged foods contain extremely high levels of added sodium. A single frozen dinner can contain over 1,000 mg alone. The sodium often comes from flavour enhancers, preservatives, and salt added during processing. While the taste may seem more appealing, the health consequences are concerning.

Over time, a high sodium diet increases water retention in the kidney and raises blood pressure. This can lead to blood vessels damage to blood vessels and deposit of harmful cholesterol. Subsequent narrowing can cause a heart attack.

Making better choices can be possible by reading nutrition labels closely and being aware of heavy sodium offenders.

Seek out low or reduced sodium alternatives, and limit consumption of highly processed snack foods and frozen meals. Preparing fresh foods at home allows you to control exactly how much sodium you add. 

While processed foods may be convenient, their amount of salt can seriously impact long-term well-being.

7. Process Foods Lead to Nutritional Deficiencies

Eating mostly processed foods can lead to nutritional deficiencies over time. Many vitamins and minerals are lost or diminished during food processing procedures.

For example, refining grains into white flour strips out the original whole grains’ vitamin E, fibre and B vitamins. And making refined sugar from sugar cane or beets depletes up to 80-90% of their natural minerals like iron, chromium and magnesium.

Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals can negatively impact your health and well-being in many ways. Lack of vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, and iron are some of the most common deficiencies, leading to an increased risk of infections, bone loss, anaemia, and fatigue.

Proper nutrition means eating whole, minimally processed foods on a regular basis. Be sure to include plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and lean proteins in your diet. If you rely heavily on processed foods, consider taking a multivitamin/mineral supplement.

8. They Resulted in Increased Calorie Intake

Overconsumption of calories is easy with processed foods. Highly palatable ingredients like added sugars, sodium, and fats make processed foods hard to resist and easy to overeat.

Portion sizes have increased dramatically over the past few decades as well. Increased consumption of high-calorie processed foods is linked directly to the obesity epidemic.

Designers of processed convenience foods and snacks aim for taste but fail to provide the same level of satiety or fullness that whole foods offer. This leads people to consume excess calories without feeling full.

The Bottom Line

Consuming highly processed foods presents a myriad of health risks and emphasizes the dangers of processed foods. These foods often contain high levels of unnatural additives, refined grains, sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium, paired with a lack of essential vitamins and nutrients.

Awareness of the dangers of processed foods is crucial. It prompts us to make conscious eating decisions, gravitate towards minimally processed options, and invest time preparing home meals.

Ultimately, the dangers of processed foods profoundly affect our health, and our daily food choices determine our well-being. So, before you reach for your next snack or meal, remember the disturbing truths about processed foods and think twice about what you consume.

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