What are Processed Foods? Why are They Bad for Your Health?

Updated on & Medically Reviewed by Dr Lalitha
Processed Foods
  *** This Article is Written by Sneha Mukkavilli.

Processed Foods

Processed foods are foods which have been altered during their preparation ie some parts of the original grains are removed, or there is addition of sugars, salts, fats, preservatives, additives or other changes etc.

Not all processed foods are bad for your health. For example, milk is pasteurized – thus making it a processed food – but this doesn’t necessarily mean pasteurized milk should not be consumed.

Ultra Processed Foods

Some processed foods, known as Ultra-Processed Foods do have detrimental effects on health in the long run. Ultra processed foods are industrially manufactured edible substances made from natural food or synthesized from other organic molecules. They contain preservatives and additives and the final product is different from the original source, in various parameters like taste, nutrient value, colour etc. Ultra processed foods are known to be harmful to the body in the long run. 

Examples of Ultra-Processed Foods:

  • Packaged chips
  • Soda & soft drinks
  • Instant noodles
  • Cereal
  • Energy bars
  • Fast food
  • Candy
  • Icecream

Why are Ultra Processed Foods Bad for Your Health?

1. Ultra Processed Foods Contain Large Amounts of Added Sugars

Many ultra-processed foods contain high fructose corn syrup or other forms of sugar. This means that ultra-processed foods are often high in calories while containing little to no nutritional content. Consuming these types of foods often can lead to an addiction of processed foods which could potentially result in type 2 diabetes, obesity, inflammatory diseases and metabolic syndrome.

2. Ultra Processed Foods Contain Artificial Ingredients

Ultra processed foods contain preservatives, artificial colors, chemical flavors and texturing agents. These help the food taste better and increase its shelf life. Ultra processed foods can also contain many chemicals not listed on their labelling. Though official corporations have tested many food additives to ensure their safety, using these chemicals is disputed among doctors and researchers

3. Ultra Processed Foods Contain a Lot of Salt

An estimated 70% of salt people consume comes from food in restaurants, packaged and processed foods. Many times, the packaged/processed food won’t even taste salty! Salt is required for basic bodily functions. However, taking excess salt can lead to high blood pressure, stroke and other cardiovascular conditions.

4. Ultra Processed Foods Contain Refined Carbohydrates

Ultra processed foods are usually high in refined carbohydrates. Refined carbohydrates are carbohydrates which have their bran, nutrients and fiber removed during processing. They do not provide long lasting energy and are not very filling. Although carbs are extremely vital for the body, consuming large amounts of refined carbohydrates causes the blood sugar and insulin levels to spike. Refined and processed foods cause the blood sugars to spike faster and higher. Food cravings and low energy levels are common after these levels come back to normal. Long term consumption of refined carbohydrates is also linked to Type 2 diabetes.

5. Ultra Processed Foods Contain Minimal Fiber

Usually, ultra processed foods are low in fiber content as much of the natural fibers get removed during processing. Without fiber, food takes less time to be absorbed and you are likely to feel less satisfied after the meal.

6. Ultra Processed Foods Contain Trans Fat

Ultra processed foods are high in unhealthy fat. Trans fat increases the inflammation in the body, raises levels of low density lipoproteins [bad fat] and lowers levels of high density lipoproteins [good fat]. Taking foods containing trans fat increases risk of heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.

What Happens If We Consume Processed Foods for Long Time?

Long term consumption of processed/packaged foods can lead to chronic illnesses such as:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Cardiac diseases
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Some Auto-immune diseases
  • Irritable bowel syndrome [IBS]

Watch the following video to know more details about Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).


How Do You Know the Nutritional Content of Food?

Make sure to check the nutritional values and labelling on any food [including ‘not ultra-processed foods’] before purchasing! This should be on the packaging of the food.

Below are the ranges of fats, sugars and salts that may be present in your food. Anything above the following ranges should be avoided.

  • Total Fat: Between 3 grams and 17 grams per 100 grams
  • Saturated Fat: Between 1.5 grams and 5 grams per 100 grams
  • Sugars: Between 5 grams and 22.5 grams per 100 grams
  • Salt: Between 0.3 grams and 1.5 grams per 100 grams

It is not possible to avoid processed and packaged foods completely. Try to restrict their consumption and opt for whole foods to the extent possible.

Works Cited:

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Disclaimer: The information provided on this page is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any questions or concerns about your health, please talk to a healthcare professional.

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