When buying food, we see the benefits of processed foods: they are more practical, look amazing, taste delicious, can be stored for weeks, if not years and children love them. These reflect the hard work of the principal instigators: Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kraft, Unilever, General Mills, Nestlé, Mars, Kellogg, Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson.
Yet it is obvious that the prevalence of chronic diseases has grown in parallel with the growth of processed food. There’s no question obesity, cardiovascular diseases and type 2 Diabetes have increased sharply and we are now paying the costs of increased processed food consumption.
Why are processed foods inherently bad for health?
Too Little Fiber
When eating food with fiber, it forms a barrier along the intestinal wall. This delays the digestive system’s ability to assimilate nutrients, instead feeding the gut microbiome. Attenuation of glucose results in insulin reduction.Attenuation of fructose absorption reduces liver fat growth.
Too little omega-3 fatty acids
Our ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 should be 1:1. However, the current ratio for an average american is 25:1.Processed foods have more omega-6, precursors of arachidonic acid, a pro-inflammatory acid, and less omega-3 acids which are anti-inflammatory. This means a processed foods diet favors a pro-inflammatory state, which can increase oxidative stress and cell damage.
Too few micro-nutrients
Antioxidants kill oxygen radicals to prevent cellular damage (vitamin C) or prevent lipid peroxidation (carotenoids and alpha-lipoic acid). Processed foods have little to no antioxidants, due to the processing methods or by wrong choice of ingredients.
By contrast, eating natural fruits and vegetables brings you lots of anti-oxidants.
Too many transfats
Tranfats are plenty in bakery products, biscuits, processed meats, prepared dishes, industrial sauces. You will also find plenty of them when buying muffins or fast food in popular fast food joints such as McDonalds or Tim Hortons.
These fats cannot be oxidized by our cells, so they line arteries and the liver. This generates oxygen radicals, accelerates aging, and increases your risk of cardiovascular disease or stroke.
Too many Branched-Amino Acids
Branched-amino acids come from protein consumption: meat, chicken, eggs, dairy. These are indispensable for muscle synthesis and make you look good.
However, americans consume these in excess, which is subsequently transformed into lipids in the liver, leading later to non-fatty liver disease.
Too many emulsifiers
Emulsifiers keep fat and water from separating. They hold your ice cream and yoghurt together.
However emulsifiers also strip away protective layers in the intestinal cells, predisposing children, teens and adults to food allergies or intestinal disease.
Too many nitrates
Nitrates are found in processed meat (deli, sausages, salami, etc.) predispose to colon / colorectal cancer, cardiovascular disease and other digestive system diseases such as diverticulitis.
Too much salt
Salt satisfies our gustatory papillae and makes processed foods more palatable. Even sweet foods such as biscuits, cakes have added sugar. And of course, salty foods are overloaded with salt.
Excess salt leads hypertension and cardiac disease.
Too much alcohol
Like red meat, alcohol is a religion in the western diet. We drink alcohol to celebrate, bond socially, make new friends or date, anytime of the day.
While moderate alcohol consumption (less than 1 glass per day) is good for health, most americans drink more than the recommended quantity. Alcohol is converted into liver fat, increases obesity (beer gut) and drives oxidative stress.
Too much sugar and carbs
Last but not least, processed foods are increasingly loaded with sugar and refined carbs. Since 1995, we have seen an increase of 187kcal/day in men, 335kcal/day. The increase is in refined carbohydrates, half of which is sugar. In the last 30 years, while meat has declined in food dollars, processed carbs and sweets have increased from 11.6 to 22.9%. In North America, more than 66% of sold products contain added sugar, which makes sugar the marker for processed food.
Sugar, fructose and carbs are metabolized into fat in the liver exactly like alcohol. This leads to type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, non alcoholic fatty liver disease, inflammation, cardiovascular disease, and more.
In fact, it is no exaggeration to say sugar is the alcohol for non-drinkers. Children are addicted to it and get diseases of alcoholic consumption without ever touching alcohol. Same for many athletes or dieters who do not drink alcohol for health reasons but then indulge on sugar-loaded smoothies, protein bars, energy drinks and are also at risk for metabolic diseases.
Not all processed foods have these poor nutritional properties. But the top 10 food global companies have capitalistic motivations to mass produce food that is consistent, stays emulsified, has long shelf life, and last but not least uses specialized ingredients to satisfy our sweet and fat taste buds so we always come back for more.
The best course of action is to buy as much natural foods as possible: vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts. Buy them whole and unprocessed and invest in cooking time. You won’t get this time back, but I can guarantee you will have much better health, which is priceless!