To many people, news and research about the positive effects of superfoods are sufficient motivation to eat healthy. Yet, sometimes we need a stark reminder of the dangers of processed foods to stay on track with our diet goals.
When you go into the grocery story, an overwhelming majority of the foods sold have been altered form their natural state. Typically, this is done to make things more convenient for the consumer.
One can categorize processed foods into groups. First, there are minimally and semi-processed foods. These include frozen vegetables, fruit juice, roasted nuts, white rice, etc. These are typically very similar to natural foods and are most-often an acceptable part of a healthy diet.
The second category are ultra-processed foods. In this category, producers use chemicals, food additives, nitrates, salts, food dyes, etc. in the production of food products. Five of the most-commonly eaten foods in the U.S. are all ultra-processed: sugary soft drinks, cakes and pastries, burgers, pizza, and chips.
Below are three pieces of recent research that emphasize what might happen when your diet consists of too many of these ultra-processed and chemical-ridden foods.
One of the Dangers of Processed Foods is Cancer
Canadian researchers recently published a study that attributed to 41% of the instances of cancer to lifestyle and environmental factors. Personal choices when it comes to diet ranked very high on the list. The study stated:
Overall, we estimated that 40.8% of incident cancer cases were attributable to exposure to the 24 factors included in the analysis (Table 2). Tobacco smoking was responsible for the greatest cancer burden, accounting for an estimated 15.7% of all incident cancer cases (2485 cases), followed by physical inactivity and excess body weight, which were responsible for an estimated 7.2% and 4.3% of incident cancer cases, respectively.
Ultra-processed foods are the main culprit of obesity. Shape magazine published findings of a study that explains the connection:
Scientists say the main purpose of ultra-processing is the creation of shelf-stable, ready-to-eat products, which are problematic in two ways. First, they are too high in saturated or trans-fats, sugar and sodium, and too low in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. Second, they tend to be calorie packed per bite, readily available, often super-sized, and heavily marketed; which all add up to overeating by throwing off our normal appetite, hunger and satiety mechanisms.
The medical establishment agrees that excess body weight, aka obesity, leads to a slew of health problems. Now Canadian researchers agree that it is a significant contributor to cancer. Disregarding the chemicals and additives used in ultra-processed foods, the effect of these foods on body weight alone makes them a harmful to our health.
Industrial Chemicals in Processed Foods
The Coalition for Safer food Processing & Packaging periodically conducts laboratory testing of foods. One such effort that tested 10 varieties of mac-and-cheese products found industrial chemicals in cheese powders. The Coalition tested for one chemical in particular, phthalates, which they identify as “hormone-disrupting chemicals that pose a serious threat to the health of pregnant women and children.”
Phthalates are chemicals that manufacturers use in rubber, plastics, adhesives, sealants, printing inks and fragrance. EcoWatch reported the Coalition’s research findings:
Phthalates in nearly every cheese product tested (29 of 30 items tested), with 10 different phthalates identified and up to six found in a single product.
Phthalates in eight of the nine Kraft cheese product items tested.
Toxic chemical phthalates at levels on average more than four times higher, on a fat basis, in macaroni and cheese powder than in hard cheese blocks and other natural cheese.
DEHP, the most widely banned phthalate around the world, in all 10 macaroni and cheese powders. DEHP accounted for nearly 60 percent of all phthalates found in the cheese product items that were tested.
For brevity’s sake, this article includes just one example of the types of chemicals one might find in processed foods. There are many other studies into nitrates, GMOs, and other food additives that question the safety of these substances.
Diet is the Cause of 1 in 5 Deaths
The Global Burden of Disease, a ongoing worldwide study, highlights that millions of people are eating the wrong foods. The Guardian reports key findings from the study:
Diet is the second highest risk factor for early death after smoking. Other high risks are high blood glucose which can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, high body mass index (BMI) which is a measure of obesity, and high total cholesterol. All of these can be related to eating the wrong foods, although there are also other causes.
The problem is often seen as the spread of western diets, taking over from traditional foods in the developing world.
This research is based out of the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. Its finding are published in by the Lancet medical journal.
The infiltration of the Western Diet into developing countries is likely a big part of the problem. As processed food becomes more popular worldwide, the detrimental effects of eating fewer whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts becomes more noticeable.
Take India, for example. “Between 2012 and 2015, the food processing industry tried to introduce nearly 4,500 products with completely new formulations.” Sadly, more products in fancy packaging and designer flavors means less grocery budget is spent on natural, living foods.
There are many benefits to eating a superfoods diet, and tons of scientific studies prove this. Although this article didn’t highlight any of these positive effects, I believe it is necessary to understand the downside of an unhealthy diet. Consider it as additional motivation to eat healthy.