What are processed foods and are they harmful to health?

During the day, the average Russian receives more than half of the calories from processed foods. In the article, we understand what these products are and how safe it is to eat them every day. Content

What are processed foods and are they harmful to health?

What are deep-processing products

Deeply processed foods are foods and drinks that contain ingredients that you would never add when cooking at home. For example, dyes, sweeteners, preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers, and other chemicals.

Generally, highly processed foods are high in salt, fat, and sugar.

The average resident of a metropolis receives more than 50% of calories from such food. Despite this, a survey conducted by the British Nutrition Foundation showed that 70% of those surveyed do not know what deeply processed foods are.

The term is increasingly used in nutritional research, and many scientists have linked a diet high in processed foods too early death, obesity, cancer, and overall poor health.

But apart from products of deep processing, there are other classes.

NOVA food classification system

This group mainly includes products of plant origin: fruits, vegetables, berries, herbs, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, beans. In addition, this also includes fresh eggs, fish, milk and meat.

Marketers like to refer to such products as organic or farm-based. But not all of them really are.

Such products do not contain added ingredients, but may be dried, ground, fried, frozen, boiled or pasteurized. So, pre-cut fruits, washed and packaged salad, frozen fish, yoghurts and juices without added sugar, dried herbs belong to this group.

Minimally processed foods have the same or nearly the same nutritional value as unprocessed foods.

Processed cooking ingredients

Processed cooking ingredients are made from raw or minimally processed foods by pressing, refining, grinding, grinding, drying.

This group includes vegetable and animal oils, sugar, vinegar, salt, and honey. Processed culinary ingredients are not eaten alone, but are used as condiments or ingredients in cooking.

processed foods

To obtain such products, as a rule, raw food products are taken and culinary ingredients (oil, sugar, spices, salt) are added to them. This is how bread, cheeses, canned vegetables and fruits, smoked and dried meat, and canned fish are obtained. The purpose of such processing is to extend the shelf life of products and improve their taste.

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While too much-processed food can increase your risk of some diseases, not all of them are unhealthy. So, the frequent consumption of processed red meat in the form of sausage, ham, and boiled pork increases the risk of developing colorectal cancer and diseases of the cardiovascular system. Conversely, fermented vegetables, such as sauerkraut, provide health benefits through changes in the gut microbiota.

Not all processed foods are equally harmful - this is one of the most important points made against the NOVA classification.

Deep processing products

Some products undergo so-called deep processing, that is, they go through a whole cycle of procedures: drying, hydrogenation, extraction, and many others.

In addition, such products often contain large amounts of salt, fat, and sugar, as well as artificial colors, stabilizers, emulsifiers, fillers, and other additives.

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But products of deep processing "take" are not good. They are very tasty (remember your favorite chips!), Packed in a bright beautiful wrapper, they are easy to take with you.

This group includes sugary carbonated drinks, chips, sausages, instant soups and noodles, sweets, breakfast cereals, and ice cream.

It is not always easy to understand that you have a product of deep processing in front of you. The fact is that the same product can be processed, minimally processed, or subjected to deep processing. It all depends on the method of preparation. So, homemade bread made from salt, yeast, water, and flour is considered processed, but not deeply processed.

Deeply processed foods are not necessarily more harmful than, for example, some processed foods.

Sarah Stanner, scientific director of the British Nutrition Foundation, warns that while many highly processed foods are indeed unhealthy and should be limited, some may be part of a healthy diet. We are talking about sliced ​​whole-grain bread and vegetable sauces for pasta or salads.

What's wrong with the NOVA classification

The NOVA classification system is often criticized. Many argue that processed foods are just a new term for the same "harmful" salty, fatty, or sweet foods.

Others believe that the NOVA classification is too inaccurate because it cannot determine the nutritional value of foods. Therefore, it cannot be used as a basis.

So, sauerkraut and salami belong to the same category but have completely different nutritional values.

We figured out what the latest research says about the dangers of deep-processing products.

How processed foods affect health

Two large studies published in the British Medical Journal found an association between processed foods, early death, and risk of cardiovascular disease.

In both studies, researchers measured the number of processed foods consumed by participants and tracked changes in health outcomes.

One study, which lasted just over five years, involved more than 100,000 adults. In this study, the lowest intake of processed foods was 7.5% of the daily calorie intake, and the highest was 30.8%.

The study found that higher consumption of highly processed foods was associated with an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

A 10% increase in the consumption of processed foods leads to a 12% increase in the risk of developing heart disease.

The second study, which lasted about ten years, involved 19,899 graduate students from Spain. During it, scientists also assessed the impact of the consumption of highly processed products on health.

The lowest level of consumption of such foods was less than two servings per day, and the highest was more than four.

According to the results of the study, scientists concluded that eating more than four servings of highly processed foods per day increases the risk of death by 62%. Adding one more serving of highly processed foods to your daily diet increases the risk of death (from all causes) by another 18%.

Both studies are observational, that is, scientists simply studied objects and did not interfere in the process. Based on the results of such studies, it is difficult to establish causal relationships. Perhaps it's not the added preservatives, stabilizers, and chemicals, but the high amounts of salt, fat, and sugar.

In addition, scientists note that people who eat a lot of processed foods often lead an unhealthy lifestyle - they smoke, drink a lot of alcohol, and move little.

However, doctors and scientists support recommendations to reduce the consumption of such foods and switch to a Mediterranean diet.

Processed foods and obesity

Obesity rates are rising in parallel with the increasing availability and prevalence of processed foods. Therefore, many researchers suggest that there is a connection between these two factors.

In particular, foods high in fat, sugar, and salt, combined with a pronounced taste and significantly altered texture (which is what deeply processed foods look like), have been found to cause people to snack more and more often.

The results of the 2019 study, in which 20 adult men and women took part, confirmed this. The participants were divided into two groups: one ate raw and minimally processed foods, and the other ate highly processed foods, and not obviously “harmful” chips and pizza, but prepared foods and convenience foods from the store (salads, frozen pasta). After two weeks, the groups switched diets.

At the same time, the total caloric content of the diet and portion sizes were the same, and the participants themselves decided whether to eat all or only a part, snack during the day or not.

As a result, the group that ate highly processed foods consumed about 508 more calories per day and gained 0.9 kilograms in two weeks. Participants from the other group, on the contrary, lost weight - also by almost a kilogram. Even more convincingly, blood tests of those who ate highly processed foods showed that they had elevated hunger hormones.

Although further confirmatory studies are needed, it is already clear that highly processed foods can cause overeating and weight gain.

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