Processed food is when food has been deliberately altered from its natural state. This means that if food is frozen, dried, canned, baked or pasteurised, it is processed.
Food can be processed for a number of reasons, such as to preserve the nutrients in the food, or changing food to contain a specific amount of certain nutrients.
When you hear the term ‘processed food’, you may think of unhealthy fast food. However, some foods require processing in order to make them safe for human consumption. We need to pasteurise milk to remove any harmful bacteria, for example.
Foods which have been altered to include more sugar, fat or salt, often to increase shelf life or improve taste, can be unhealthy, so you need to be fully aware of what you eat. Commonly, foods with a label are processed.
There is a difference between chemical processing and mechanical processing, and generally we consider mechanically processed food to still be ‘real food’. Foods which have been chemically processed will often have artificial ingredients.
To reiterate, not all processed food is ‘evil’, we just tend to think of unhealthy fast food when the subject comes up. Certain types can carry a number of health benefits, and can become an important part of a healthy diet.
Processed foods history
The practice of processing food technically began approximately two million years ago, when our ancestors used fire to cook food. Over time, food was preserved with salt, fermented or dried, up until today and the many different ways we process food.
Examples of processed food
Lots of food is actually processed, and some of the most common examples include:
- Canned fruit and vegetables
- Drinks – soft drinks, fizzy drinks, milk, etc.
- Meat products – bacon, sausages, ham, etc.
- Ready meals
- Savoury products – crisps, biscuits, etc.
What is processed meat?
When meat is modified in order to change its taste, or to extend its shelf life, it is known as processed meat. Examples of this include adding salt, adding preservatives, curing and smoking.
Bacon, sausages, ham, meat-based sauce and canned meat are just some examples of processed meats. However, if beef is put through a mincer only, this does not mean it is processed, unless more alterations are made.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that processed meat does in fact cause cancer. Despite admitting the evidence is limited, the WHO says eating 50g of processed meat each day increases the risk of developing cancer by 18 per cent.
This is thought to be due to carcinogenic chemicals forming during the processing, although the scientists are not completely sure, as of yet. Processed meat has been classed into Group 1 by the WHO, which means it is ‘carcinogenic to humans’. There are five different groups, with Group 1 being the worst.
Of course, eating food such as bacon and sausages is not worse for you than smoking, but the research suggests it can be harmful. Therefore, you should be very mindful about the quantity of processed meat you eat.
In moderation, you can still include them in your diet, but try to spread them out during the week, and consider replacing them with healthier alternatives as much as possible.
Meat does still carry certain benefits though, and health experts have highlighted that obesity and a lack of exercise are much worse for your health, so it is not necessarily a case of completely cutting out processed meat.
Categories of processed meat products
There are numerous categories of processed meat products, with six fairly broad groups created based on the processing method used.
Fresh processed meat
Examples include chicken nuggets, kebabs, fried sausages and hamburgers.
Examples include meat loaf, frankfurter, bologna sausage and mortadella.
Pre-cooked cooked meat
Examples include corned beef, blood sausage and liver sausage.
Examples include beef jerky and biltong.
Examples include raw ham and raw cured beef.
Raw fermented sausages
An example of this is salami.
What makes some processed foods less healthy and harmful?
Added sugar, fat, salt and other ingredients can make foods less healthy, in the pursuit of improved taste, extended shelf life, or even to change the structure of food, such as including sugar in cake.
Unfortunately, adding these ingredients can lead to people eating more additives than they realise, which can result in your diet becoming less healthy. It is also very possible that these foods contain a high number of calories, because of the high sugar or fat content.
This has led to many debates over taking action such as introducing a sugar tax, to discourage people from consuming products high in sugar, to help prevent weight gain and the development of health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
A number of scientific reports have called for people to not let more than 5 per cent of their daily calorie intake come in the form of sugar. Sugar is viewed as being ’empty’ calories, providing a lot of energy but no essential nutrients. Currently, 15 per cent of a teenager’s calorie intake comes in the form of sugar, whilst for adults this figure stands at 12 per cent, on average.
According to a study published in the journal The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, one million adults could be prevented from becoming obese by changes made within five years. Reducing the amount of sugar in fizzy drinks by 40 per cent would, the study claims, not only stop this amount of people becoming obese, but also prevent 250,000 people from developing type 2 diabetes.
Reducing your sugar intake would not only improve your health significantly, it would also help to save the NHS money. Diabetes is estimated to cost the NHS £10 billion each year, with more than four million people in the UK diagnosed with diabetes.
What do medics say about processed foods?
Whilst not all processed foods are harmful, certain ones can be, such as a number of microwaveable ready meals which are often high in salt, fat, sugar and more.
Certain additives may actually weaken the intestines, according to a study which was published in Autoimmunity Reviews, which can increase your risk of developing autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS), celiac disease, Crohn’s disease and type 1 diabetes.
The research team looked for a link between the rise in autoimmune diseases and the rise in processed food consumption, specifically investigating the effects of specific additives on the intestines.
When ‘tight junctions’ in the intestines – which help to prevent bacteria from entering the bloodstream – do not function properly, it can lead to toxins entering the bloodstream and can potentially result in autoimmune diseases, the team discovered.
Glucose, gluten, organic acids, nanometric particles, fat solvents, sodium and microbial transglutaminase were seven commonly used food additives that appear to weaken the tight junctions in the intestine.
The findings indicate that these additives may increase your risk of autoimmune disease, and as such, you should be mindful of foods which contain these additives, especially in high numbers.
How can I eat processed foods as part of a healthy diet?
Processed foods will be rather prominent in your diet, but in order to follow a healthy diet, you should limit your consumption of those unhealthy foods that have been heavily chemically processed, and instead prioritise healthier foods.
It is important to read nutrition information labels on food and drinks, as this can help you monitor your intake of calories, fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugar, salt, fibre and protein.
Processed foods can sometimes provide more benefits than the original, raw form. For example, tinned tomatoes provide higher levels of lycopene, an antioxidant, than raw tomatoes do. Being able to store them easily for a long period of time, as well as the fact they are one of your five a day, makes them a good addition to your diet. Be sure to check the label though, to avoid having tins with added salt or sugar.
Rather than completely cutting out foods which aren’t good for you, consider limiting your consumption instead. Of course, certain foods are unhealthy, but in moderation, you should be able to enjoy the odd treat whilst following a healthy diet.
What is okay?
Certain processed foods can actually be healthy, and you might not even think of them as being processed food. Just be sure to check the labels, to avoid buying versions high in fat, sugar, salt or other additives, for some of the following healthy products:
- Frozen fruit and vegetables
- Frozen fish
- Canned beans
- Canned fish
- Whole grain pasta
- Whole grain bread
- Whole grain crackers
- Packaged nuts
What should be avoided?
The worst products to eat are those which are highly processed, such as most fast food. Generally, you should try to avoid foods high in fat, sugar or salt, or at least seriously limit your intake of such foods. Some of the unhealthiest processed foods include:
- Ice cream
- Processed meats
- Fizzy drinks
- Canned soup (often high in salt)
- Fast food
- Sweet cereals (many cereals are very high in sugar)
- Cookies/Muffins/Cakes (store-bought ones are often unhealthier than homemade ones)
- Coffee/Tea/Hot chocolate (store-bought hot drinks are often high in sugar)
You may also find that certain low-fat or zero-fat products are actually very unhealthy, as manufacturers add more sugar instead, to improve the taste. This can explain why some people experience weight gain, despite eating low-fat food.