To be fair, the label “processed foods” covers quite a wide range of consumable items. While pre-cut watermelon technically qualifies as “processed,” it doesn’t lose any of its nutritional value through being cut and packaged for convenience. The main offenders are processed foods that have been chemically–not mechanically– altered.
These 10 facts about highly processed foods might make you think twice before reaching for your next snack.
They are loaded with sugar.1 of 11
Processed foods are usually loaded with sugar or its evil twin high fructose corn syrup. It's so prevalent, in fact, that a recent study found that processed foods were responsible for nearly 90 percent of the added sugars in an average American diet.
Added sugars are empty calories and, while they do provide energy, they contain no real nutrients. Ingesting too much of the sweet stuff can lead to a host of other issues and have devastating effects on the metabolism.
They are stripped of fiber.2 of 11
Fiber–especially soluble, fermentable fiber–has many benefits. Among them is the ability to slow down the absorption of carbohydrates and help us feel more satisfied with fewer calories. Chemically altered foods have often been stripped of their fiber in processing, leading to quicker digestion which can make it more difficult for your body to feel satisfied.
They are altered to be addictive.3 of 11
"Betcha can't eat just one!"
There's actually science behind the tagline of your favorite crunchy snack. Processed foods like potato chips are often chemically altered to be "hyper-rewarding," releasing an intense hit of the reward-related neurotransmitter dopamine when consumed. This is the main reason why many people struggle to stop eating processed foods and even battle food addiction.
They can cause mood swings.4 of 11
Let's face it: Many of us get a touch "hangry" when we've waited too long to eat. But grabbing that convenient candy bar or bag of chips to satisfy our hunger may actually take our mood from bad to worse. A new study links the trans fats in processed foods to increased irritability and aggression. Keep your emotional state on an even keel by reaching for whole, unprocessed foods to abate your hunger.
Their labels read like a chemistry textbook.5 of 11
If you look at the ingredient label on a packaged, processed food, chances are you won't recognize—or even be able to pronounce—many of the items on the list. That's because most of those ingredients are artificial chemicals that have been added to enhance taste, improve texture or extend the shelf life of the product.
Manufacturers aren't even required to disclose each chemical added. Instead, they utilize the nebulous "artificial flavor" term to mask their proprietary blends of additives. Would you really want to eat a product that is more science project than food?
They raise your sodium levels sky high.6 of 11
While the human body needs a certain amount of salt to function properly, too much salt increases your sodium levels and can elevate your risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Processed foods often contain added salt to improve their taste, increase shelf life and add texture, and consuming these products can push your sodium intake past the recommended 2,300mg daily limit. What's more, most salt used in processed foods is lacking in the nutritional value and trace minerals provided by better options like Himalayan sea salt.
They can sabotage your sleep.7 of 11
When consumed close to bedtime, processed foods can make getting a good night's sleep next to impossible. You may find yourself tossing and turning as your body struggles to deal with the sudden spikes and crashes in blood sugar produced from digesting high levels of refined carbohydrates. To keep your insulin levels stable and get a more restful night's sleep, stick to unprocessed foods for meals and snacks.
They are low in nutrients.8 of 11
Processed foods are extremely low in nutrients compared to whole, unprocessed foods. Though synthetic vitamins and minerals are sometimes added back in to replace those lost during processing, they are a poor substitute for the original nutrients. Science is just beginning to understand the benefits of thousands of additional vitamins, antioxidants and trace minerals found in real plant and animal foods, and the more processed foods you eat, the less of these beneficial nutrients you receive.
They may prompt overeating.9 of 11
Food manufacturers want their products to have a long shelf life, be extremely tasty and be very easy to eat. As we mentioned before, this goal is often accomplished by stripping the fiber from these foods so that they are easily processed by the body–some almost melt in your mouth. Since it takes less energy for the body to consume them, and we often don't feel full when we do, we tend to eat more processed foods in a shorter amount of time. This overeating can, of course, lead to weight gain.
They often contain processed oils and trans fats.10 of 11
To make their foods cheap and shelf-stable, manufacturers often turn to refined seed and vegetable oils that are hydrogenated, a process which turns them into trans fats. These trans fats are extremely harmful to the body and can lead to a host of adverse effects on your health. Even processed oils that are not hydrogenated should be avoided. These oils contain excessive levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which can increase inflammation and oxidation in the body.