According to the National Health Service (NHS), processed food is defined as “A processed food is any food that has been altered in some way during preparation.” We would like to extend this definition a little bit, where the ‘alteration’ in this case can refer to both mechanical processing and chemical processing, which a fundamentally different.
Mechanical processing could be something as basic as plucking and washing lemons, grounding beef that one has just purchased from the local butcher or maybe using a food processor (whether industrial or home) to chop up vegetables into various sizes and shapes and storing them temporarily in containers or refrigerator.
Chemical processing, on the other hand involves food manufacturing process with industrial formulation that consist mixture of various substances such as refined ingredients, preservatives, additives, artificial flavouring that typically change the characteristics of the taste, shelf-life and even nutritional content of the original food source(s)/raw ingredients.
While it is near impossible to avoid all processed food, what is troubling is that some of the most highly processed foods are being touted as being the healthiest i.e. low-fat foods, breakfast cereals, whole-wheat bread, frozen meals, and condiments.
Here are 9 honest facts about processed foods that we hope, will make you consider reaching out for all natural and wholesome food :
Our body is designed to naturally regulate how much we eat and energy we burn. However, food manufacturers have, unfortunately, found out how to ‘override’ these intrinsic regulators, designing processed food that are engineered to be “hyper-rewarding”.
According to the “food reward hypothesis of obesity”, processed food stimulate such a strong reward response in our brains that it becomes quite easy to overeat. One of the guiding principles for the processed food industry is known as “sensory-specific satiety”.
According a New York Times investigative reporter, Michael Moss, the above is describe as “the tendency for big, distinct flavours to overwhelm your brain”. The greatest successes, whether beverage or food, owe their “craveability” to complex formulas that pique our taste buds just enough, without overwhelming them, thereby orverriding one’s brain inclination to say emough.
This is actually a real phenomenon that is backed by science. Food ‘processing’ modifies and/or removes important components of food, such as fibre, water and nutrients, therefore changing the way these processed food are digested and assimilated in our body.
Unlike whole food, which contain a mixture of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, fibre and water to help one feel satisfied, processed food stimulate dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, making you feel good even though the food lacks nutrients and fibre. This artificial dopamine stimulation can lead to excessive food cravings and ultimately food addiction!
And in 2013, Oreo (yes everybody’s favourite) cookies were found to be just as addictive as cocaine or morphine, with Oreos activating more neurons in the pleasure centres of rat brains than exposure to illicit drugs did. Also taking the top spot for ‘addictiveness’ are Potato Chips (which is an all-time favourite), as it contains the triumvirate bliss-inducing ingredients of sugar (from the potatoes), salt and fat.
According to Mr.Moss (that New York Times investigative reporter we mentioned earlier), the coating of salt, the fat content that rewards the brain with instant feeling of pleasure, the sugar that exists not as an addictive but in starch of the potato itself, all of these combine to potato chips the perfect addicitve food.
Excess sugar consumption is linked to insulin resistance, high triglycerides, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer. Fructose “programmes” your body to consume more calories and store fat.
Fructose is primarily metabolised by your liver. If you eat a typical Western-style diet, you consume high amounts of it and fructose ends up taxing and damaging your liver, in the same way alcohol and other toxins do.
And just like alcohol, fructose is metabolised directly into fat where it gets stored in your fat cells, which can lead to mitochondrial malfunction, obesity and obesity-related diseases, especially if you are insulin or leptin-resistant.
That’s good right? Especially when you require less energy to do something like eating and digesting 😉 Well, actually no – not good at all, in this context and situation.
Here’s why :
“Vanishing Calorie Density” is a term used to describe processed food that melts in your mouth, which inadvertently has the effect of making your brain think it does not contain any calories and because of that, we think all is well, and well, keep on eating!
In fact, not only can you eat these processed food faster (imagine comparing easily crushing potato chips and incessantly chewing on a piece of broccoli – you get the idea) but also takes less energy to digest them. In one study, it took volunteers twice as many calories to digest an unprocessed meal compared to a processed one.
Those who regularly eat processed food may reduce the amount of claories they burn throughout the day because of this “Vanishing Calorie Density” effect.
It is quite common to find trans fat in food that contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oil such as crackers, chips, most supermarket (and neighbourhood grocery stores) bought baked breads and fried food. Synthetic trans fats are known to promote inflammation, which is the hallmark of most major or serious diseases.
Most of these processed food also contain high amounts of Omega-6 fats in the form of processed vegetable oils. These polyunsaturated fats tend to stimulate inflammatory processes in your body and they are very chemically unstable and proce to oxidation.
Comsuming these oxidised fat in excess has been linked to all sorts of health problems such as atherosclerosis and heart disease.
Processed may contain dozens of artificial chemicals that are in no way ‘real’ food. These include :
Food manufacturers typically claim that artificial food additives are safe but research points otherwise. Preservatives have been linked to health problems such as cancer, allergic reactions and more.
Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydrotoulene (BHT) are preservatives that affect the neurological system of one’s brain, alter behaviour, and have the potential to cause cancer. Tertiary Butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) is a chemical preservative so deadly that just 5 grams can kill you!
Or take artificial colours for example where nine of the food dyes currently approved for use in the US are linked to health problems ranging from cancer and hyperactivity to allergy-like reactions and ironically, these results were from studies conducted by the chemical industry itself.
Artificial flavouring are not much better either. The artificial flavouring diacetyl which is often used as butter flavouring on microwave popcorn, has several worrying properties concerning brain health and may trigger the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Genetically engineered flavour enhancers can also be listed under the artificial flavour (natural colour) label.
Refined carbohydrates like breakfast cereals, bagels, waffles, pretzels and most other processed food quickly break down to sugar in our body. this increases one’s insulin and leptin levels and contributes to insulin resistance, which is the primary underlying factor of almost every chronic disease known to man and this also include unwanted weight gain.
As Business Insider reported : “one of the main problems is that refined carbohydrates are quickly broken down in the digestive tract, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels.”
This can indeed lead to carb cravings a mere few hours later when blood sugar levels go down again where this situation is also called the “blood sugar roller coaster” in which many people who have been on a high-carb diet can relate to. Not suprisingly, eating a lot of refined carbohydrates is associated with negative health effects and many of the said chronic diseases.
Do also be careful of food labelled as ‘whole grains’ which are often found on processed food packages (including breakfast cereals) as these are usually whole grains that have been pulverised into very fine flour and as just as harmful as their refined counterparts.
Processed food often have real nutrition processed out, and then sometimes added back in, but in the form of synthetic vitamins and minerals. these synthetics do not fool your body and most often does not provide the whole synergistic nutrition that eating whole food will.
Furthermore, it’s near impossible that a laboratory could manage to ‘reintroduce’ all of the thousands of phytochemicals and trace nutrients found in whole food as even science itself has not become to uncover all of these phytochemicals and nutrients. So, the best way to ensure our body derive all the benefits of all the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and what the best nature has to offer, is therefore, to eat whole unprocessed food.
Public health guidelines from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advise eating 20 to 30 grams of fibre a day but most adults do not even manage to eat half of that recommended amount.
The above is actually not surprising because fibre refers to the indigestible portion of plant food and in the largely refined standard ‘modern’ diet, healthful fibres are often processed right out. Unless one regularly consume whole fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, one may be missing out on the healthiest forms of fibre available.