Processed Foods: Why We Should Limit Them

In today’s fast-paced and stressful age, processed foods are ubiquitous and often the main source diet for many people.

The term “processed” refers to foods that have undergone mechanical or chemical manipulations during the manufacturing process to alter or preserve them.

It is important to understand that any method implemented to change the original structure of food belongs to a wider spectrum of food processing.

These processes can include various methods such as pasteurization, salting, cooking, drying, or simply cutting.

A system known as NOVA was created to classify foods according to the degree of processing, and according to this they are divided into:

Unprocessed or minimally processed foods

This category includes natural foods that have undergone mild treatment, such as the simple removal of their inedible or undesirable parts, but also processes such as drying, pasteurization, boiling, roasting, cooling, freezing, and packaging.

Processed food items

This includes cooking ingredients such as oils and butter. sugar and salt, in other words materials intended for use in the preparation and cooking of food.

Processed foods

This classification includes canned foods, cheeses, fresh breads, fruit in syrup, etc., prepared using second-category food materials by various canning or cooking methods and usually consisting of two or three ingredients. belongs to

Highly processed or highly processed foods

These are mainly compositions of ingredients intended for exclusive industrial use, usually produced through a series of industrial techniques and processes.

Some common highly processed products are carbonated soft drinks, sweet or salty packaged snacks, various confections, mass-produced pastries, cookies, yogurt dough, cakes and cake mixes, margarine and other spreads, sugary breakfast cereals, fruit yogurt desserts, energy drinks, ready meals, ready burgers and other dehydrated meat products, ready soup powders, etc.

Eating foods in this category has been shown to be associated with a number of health and physical effects weight it is worth considering in this article.

What do the numbers say?

An analysis of global data on the sale of highly processed foods reveals a growing shift to a diet that includes them.

More specifically, in high-income countries, the percentage of energy consumption derived from highly processed foods ranges from 10% in Italy, 25% in South Korea to 42% in Australia, and 58% in the United States.

In low- and middle-income countries, such as Colombia and Mexico, this percentage ranges from 16 to 30%.

Of course, one of the reasons for this growth is the expansion of the availability and variety of these products in recent decades.

How it affects our health

The specific characteristics of highly processed foods are of concern in terms of food quality and public health in general.

These characteristics include changes in food structure and texture, potential contaminants from packaging material and processing, the addition of other foods and ingredients, and low nutrient content (eg high energy, salt, sugar and saturated fat, low levels of dietary fibre, micronutrients and vitamins).

Although research is still in its early stages, there is evidence that these properties may have combinatorial or enhanced effects on chronic inflammatory diseases.

More specifically, in a very recent study involving 45 meta-analyses involving more than 9.8 million participants in 2024, seven consumption-related health parameters (mortality, cancer, mental, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and metabolic health) was investigated. highly processed foods.

As an overall conclusion, the study showed that the greater the exposure to these foods, the higher the risk of adverse health outcomes in all parameters examined.

In fact, consumption of highly processed foods has been linked to:

  • Death from various causes, with a stronger one associated with cardiovascular disease
  • Different types of cancer mainly from the colon
  • Health problems relationship with the gastrointestinal system and more specifically with idiopathic inflammatory bowel disease
  • Adverse effects on metabolic health, mainly associated with obesity (especially central obesity), type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
  • Implications for mental health
  • Effects on the health of the respiratory system, wheezing with greater correlation

We celebrate the event

Thus, given the available literature, it is important to be wary of hyper-processed foods and favor natural, unprocessed foods whenever possible.

The most effective way to reduce the consumption of processed foods is to replace them with healthier alternatives that have undergone less or no intervention.

Helpful tips

Here are some practices that can help:

  • Limiting fast food, ready snacks and deliveries.
  • Spending time cooking and above all preparing food. Foods like bread, sauces, ice cream, chips and mustard can be made very easily from simple, clean ingredients if we just spend a little more time preparing them.
  • Reduce the availability of ready-to-eat snacks and meals and increase the availability of healthy snacks such as fruits, nuts and vegetables.
  • Education in reading and understanding nutrition labels to know as well as possible the level of processing and ingredients in the food we consume.

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