Through the excessive heating and cooling processes, which are required in order to give processed foods extended shelf lives, vital nutrients are greatly diminished. Blanching vegetables before they are packaged causes water-soluble vitamins like vitamin B to fall out. Milling grains for breads causes the husk to fall off, which stores most of the valuable nutrients. The examples go on and on.
Nutrient destruction happens to all fruits and vegetables that are not freshly prepared – leaving your veggies in the fridge for several days will cause the same nutrient depletion. Processed foods also loose a great deal of their flavor as they are altered for longer shelf-lives, another downer.
What this means is that if you’re eating processed foods, then you’re getting lots of empty calories – calories that come with few or no nutrients that your body needs. So either you’re not getting these nutrients, which is bad for your general health, or you need to eat a whole bunch of calories in order to get them. On the other hand, if you’re consuming “nutrient dense” foods (fresh foods that aren’t processed), then you can get all the nutrients you need with many fewer calories.
So this is the main thing that processed food is missing – nutrient density.
Additives: chemicals added to processed food
In order to reintroduce flavor that gets removed through processing, food manufactures add a variety of substances to increase flavor. Trans-fats (also know as “hydrogenated fats”) are one of the most commonly used additives. They are found in margarine, vegetable shortenings, peanut butter, and Oreo filling.
These fats are chemically altered to turn a liquid into a soft solid form. Food processors use this technique because it allows for longer shelf-lives and gives foods like peanut butter and margarine an even consistency. Unfortunately, trans-fats have been found to increase LDL cholesterol – the form of cholesterol associated with increased risk of heart disease – and to decrease HDL cholesterol, otherwise known as “good cholesterol” (more to come on this topic in subsequent posts).
One of the most common chemicals added to processed meats are nitrites. Nitrites are most noticeable in salami and hot dogs because they give these foods their pink color. These chemicals are used because they prevent bacteria growth, but they’ve also been found to increase the risk of cancer (when the nitrites form nitrosamines).
Other food coloring agents, such as the Yellow No. 5 found in Dorritos or the Red No. 40 found in Fruit Loops, have been associated with numerous side effects (such as cancer in both animals and humans), and the only benefit these agents serve is to make food look more appealing.
BHT – one of the most commonly used preservatives – has been found to cause stomach tumors in animal studies. It’s worth noting that the animals in these studies ingested high levels of BHT (much higher than is permitted in processed food), but we still have little information about the effects of this widely used chemical and the studies do not look promising. This is one of the main issues with all these chemicals – we just don’t know what they do to the human body over the long-term because they haven’t been around for that long.
As some of you may already know, the recent “pink slime” scandal has exposed many of the other harmful chemicals in processed meat. Grist has a great post on this topic – ‘Pink slime’ is the tip of the iceberg. The phrase “pink slime” itself refers to the substance that’s created when meat processors grind up waste meat trimmings and add ammonium hydroxide (the same chemical found in many cleaning products) in order to keep people from getting sick from eating it. Pretty gross, huh? This Jamie Oliver video explains exactly how pink slim is made if you’d like to see for yourself.
In addition, processed foods constitute the vast majority of sodium in the typical American diet (roughly 75% according to the Mayo Clinic). The sodium comes from salt and many other sodium compounds that preserve and enhance flavor, which are needed because processing strips out most of the natural flavor. Kind of crazy, isn’t it? The circular nature of it all?
As most of you know, sodium is one of the main culprits of high blood pressure, so avoiding processed foods can do a great deal to help you avoid high blood pressure. The processed foods that contain the most sodium include hotdogs, deli meats, and microwave dinners – all foods you should try to avoid.
All of this is a long way of saying that processed food has a lot of bad stuff added to it. And by eating processed foods, we’re putting this bad stuff into our bodies. So this is the second big thing we don’t like about processed food.