While processed foods have been researched for over a decade, the term “processed” is relatively new when it comes to the food industry. Most likely, you’ve heard “processed” explained as foods that are “significantly changed from [their] original state, with salt, sugar, fat, additives, preservatives and/or artificial [colors].” Even though this is an accurate definition, it really just grazes the surface of the encompassing umbrella of what “processed” can mean.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has defined processing “as the alteration of foods form the state in which they are harvested or raised to better preserve them and feed consumers.” This ASN definition expands “processed food” immensely to include products such as “washed raw spinach and frozen strawberries”, as well as products such as Pop-Tarts, Lucky Charms, and hot dogs. This explains not only the confusion around what “processed foods” are, but also why processed foods make up “almost half of the food we eat every day.”
What are Ultra-Processed Foods?
Alright, we know that processed foods should be avoided, but what about this new term “ultra-processed foods” popping up everywhere?
Due to the massive amount of media consumed by the average person on a daily basis, fresh ideas, theories, and terms quickly become mainstream and, just as quickly, normalized. This is what has happened to the term processed. Therefore, the term ultra-processed, coined by Brazil University’s Dr. Carlos Monteiro, was generated to spotlight “attractive, hyper-palatable, cheap, ready-to-consume food products that are characteristically energy-dense, fatty, sugary or salty and generally obesogenic” — a term referring to weight gain and obesity. The term ultra-processed has opened the door for more conversation regarding dangers of nutrition, as well as served as a “foundation for improved food policy,” including healthier school lunches and vending machine products and has also been “a boon for health advocates, as it helps deliver a more targeted message.”
The Breakdown of the Terms and the Food
If you’re still a bit confused, don’t get frustrated!
The world of nutrition is one laden with back and forth between the individual person, holistic health, the medical community, big food industries, pharmaceutical companies, and many more players. The truth is, there really isn’t one perfect answer for everyone. With that said, one of the best ways to navigate nutrition, especially when it comes to processed food, is to understand the available terms.
Unprocessed or Minimally Processed
These are foods that have only a few ingredients on the label— such as Almond Butter that has “almonds” as the ingredient — or straight raw foods — such as a bundle of kale or a bushel of apples. Unprocessed and minimally processed foods include “vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits, [and] nuts,” for those strict plant-based eaters, as well as meats, seafood, eggs, and milk for non-strict plant-based eaters. Keep in mind, these foods should also have zero added sugars, flavoring, and chemicals.
For example, if you purchase roasted salted nuts, even though they may seem raw, they are in fact processed, most likely with vegetable oils for the roasting, and have added salt.
Processed Culinary Ingredients
Most likely, you’ve got a pantry full of processed culinary ingredients and that’s ok … up to a point.
Processed culinary ingredients include “herbs, spices, balsamic vinegar, garlic, and oil.” Most processed culinary ingredients are safe to consume such as extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, vinegar, and dried spices. With that said, steer clear of vegetable oils — such as canola, grapeseed, and soy — as well as highly processed margarine and butter substitutes. One of the most important things to remember about processed culinary ingredients is added sugars — “sugars and syrups put in foods during preparation or processing, or added at the table.” Small quantities of natural sugar is an important part of a well-balanced diet, but added sugars are dangerous. Keep your eye on the ingredients list to make sure there aren’t any added sugars, such as in ketchup, where one tablespoon has over 3 grams of added sugar alone!
This is where careful attention is necessary. The technical definition of processed foods is when “ingredients such as oil, sugar or herbs are added to foods and they are packaged, the result is processed foods.” Basically, any food that has been altered from its natural state. Therefore, processed culinary foods fall under the broader umbrella of processed foods.
For example, tofu, cheese, and canned foods are all altered, therefore they are processed. This is why reading the ingredients label is important! Look for added sugars, hydrogenated oils, and long lists of ingredients. If you find ingredients that you can’t pronounce, don’t understand, or if the list is upwards of five or six items, then you most likely want to ditch that item for a less processed option.
Is your health awareness red alert raised? Great, because we’re about to enter the danger zone.
Ultra-processed foods are defined by the stages of processing they go through — such as extrusion, molding, and milling — and they “contain many added ingredients and are highly manipulated.” What’s included in this category? To name a few, “soft drinks, chips, chocolate, candy, ice cream, sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged soups, chicken nuggets, hotdogs, and [fries].”
The major difference between processed and ultra-processed is that some processed foods may have been altered, but “not in a way that’s detrimental to your health.” All ultra-processed foods are dangerous to your health. They are labeled “ultra-processed” because they contain ingredients that are known to cause health issues.
Health Risks of Ultra-Processed Foods
It’s easy to simply say that ultra-processed foods are bad, but understanding the risks of consuming these foods is a better way to begin changing your dietary regimen. While studies are still underway in regards to the “whole package” of ultra-processed foods, if you break it down to the individual ingredients that make ultra-processed foods ultra-processed, the health risks begin mounting along with the science-based evidence.
Increased Risk of Heart Disease
The number one health risk of ultra-processed foods that you’ll find plastered in numerous medical journals is long-term heart health. The two culprits are processed vegetable oils and added sugars.
When it comes to added sugar, if you routinely consume ultra-processed foods, you’re getting a large dose every time you consume these products! For a more scientific viewpoint, per a joint study between the University of Sao Paulo and Tufts University, “the content of added sugars in ultra-processed foods (21.1%) was eightfold higher than in processed foods (2.4%) and fivefold higher than in unprocessed or minimally processed foods and processed culinary ingredients grouped together (3.7%).”
Over a 15-year study conducted on the relationship between “added sugar and heart disease”, published in the April 2014 issue of JAMA International Medicine journal, “participants who took in 25% or more of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those whose diets included less than 10% added sugar.” If you’re thinking that maybe your exercise routine will counter those effects, then you’d be wrong. The study continued to explain that “the odds of dying from heart disease rose in tandem with the percentage of sugar in the diet” regardless of “age, sex, physical activity level, and body mass index (a measure of weight).”
Yet, it’s not just the added sugars, but also the vegetable oils.
A recent paper published in the American Journal of Cardiovascular Health by Dr. Fred Kummerow argued that “the primary cause of heart disease is oxidized cholesterol and fats,” due to the fact that “when fats degrade, free radicals ‘steal’ electrons and a free radical chain reaction mechanism ensues, leading to cell damage.” When you think about the fact that processed foods make up “almost half of the food we eat every day,” you can begin to add up all of that added sugar, vegetable oil, and unhealthy fat being consumed.
In the same joint study mentioned previously, between the University of Sao Paulo and Tufts University, it’s conjectured that “limiting the consumption of ultra-processed foods may be a highly effective way to decrease added sugars.” Basically, the only way to avoid these risks is by cutting ultra-processed food and a handful of processed foods from your diet.
Unwanted Weight Gain
Managing a healthy weight is an important part of overall health, yet managing it’s a partnership that relies on both diet and activity or exercise. Ultra-processed foods have been linked to an increased rate of obesity, mostly due to the “high consumption of added sugars,” and vegetable oils. A recent study found that “a high intake of added sugars increases the risk of weight gain, excess body weight, and obesity.” As these foods are loaded with sugar, reducing their consumption will also reduce your risk of related unwanted weight gain. On the other hand, those that suffer from ultra-processed food related obesity have an increased risk of many health issues such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, fatty liver and kidney diseases, sleep apnea, heart disease, stroke, and even certain types of cancers, to name just a few.
It’s hard pressed not to find research linking processed and ultra-processed foods to certain cancers and, unfortunately, this is no exception.
Two of the leading cancer-causing agents currently being research is vegetable oil and added sugar. Why are they so dangerous? Beginning with vegetable oils, some — such as soybean, canola, corn, safflower, and sunflower — are high in polyunsaturated fat which oxidizes rapidly when exposed to heat. This oxidation damages cells and has been linked to the occurrence of cancer. Many processed foods use vegetable oils, so, even though you may not be the one heating it up, they have already been heated up via the process of processing.
Secondly, let’s look at sugar. Sugar is indirectly linked to the occurrence of cancer. As mentioned above, increased regular consumption of added sugar leads to increased empty nutrition and high-calorie intake and therefore leads to “excess body fat.” This development of excess body fat “increases the risk of many common cancers.”
Negative Impact on Lifespan
If heart disease and cancer weren’t motivation enough to give up ultra-processed foods, then how about a higher risk of overall morbidity?
A new study by French scientists published in JAMA International Medicine has some alarming findings regarding morbidity rates and ultra-processed foods. The study monitored “the diets of tens of thousands of French people between 2009 and 2017” looking at the relationship between health levels, longevity, mortality, and food consumption. According to the study, consumption of ultra-processed foods — instead of whole foods — was found to result in a modestly “heightened mortality risk.” Basically, eating ultra-processed food ups your overall risk of morbidity.
Plant-Based Substitutes for Ultra Processed Foods
When it comes to picking out unprocessed or minimally processed foods, it gets difficult. One of the easiest identifiers is in the ingredients. Are there more than three or four ingredients? Are there ingredients you don’t understand and can’t even pronounce? Do you see any “added sugars” or “vegetable oils” in the nutrition info? These are all sure-fire indicators that the product has gone through some sort of processing.
In our over-processed food industry, the best way to avoid processed foods is to have complete control over the ingredients. This means DIY home recipes — the only way you choose the exact ingredients — is oftentimes the best way to cut these toxins completely!
Here are a few simple, easy, delicious, plant-based, and all-natural recipes to get you started cutting out those processed foods!
Sriracha Sweet Potato Chips/One Green Planet
These are three of my favorite snacks to have on hand at home! Plus, they are super easy to make. Try out these simple Baked Kale Chips, these Baked Cinnamon Apple Chips, or these Sriracha Sweet Potato Chips.
While there are plenty of recipes to make your own plant-based chips, let’s face it, sometimes you just don’t have the time! You’re in luck! There are a host of organic and natural brands — such as Rhythm Superfood and Raw Food Central — that you can purchase online or in the store. Try out these organic, non-GMO, and zero added sugar Rhythm Superfood Carrot Sticks, Raw Food Central Curt’s Classic Kale Chips, or these non-GMO, gluten-free, and organic Garden of Eatin’ Kale Corn Tortilla Chips.
Sweet Potato Pretzel KNots with Curried Mustard/One Green Planet
Bread is one of the most processed foods on the grocery store shelf. Yet, it also happens to be one of the easiest food items to make at home. For a snack, try out these simple Vegetable Buns or these Sweet Potato Pretzel Knots with Curried Mustard. If you’re looking for more of a traditional loaf, try out this Gluten-Free High Fiber Bread or this Whole Wheat Oat Bread.
Making bread is oftentimes time consuming, therefore try out a few of these easily purchasable brands: Food For Life Ezekiel Breads — such as this Organic Sprouted 7 Grain Bread — Alvarado St. Bakery — such as this Sprouted Multigrain Bread — or Dave’s Killer Bread — such as this Thin Sliced Sprouted Whole Grain Bread.
Ginger Lime Kombucharita/One Green Planet
Kicking soda is one of the best ways to eliminate added sugars from your diet. Yet, most of us enjoy a flavored and carbonated beverage to consume in its place. Luckily, there are a slew of healthy carbonated alternatives to choose from, but, my personal favorite is Kombucha! It’s got a slightly spicy kick, a bit of caffeine, and wonderful fizz! Plus, you can make it at home with this easy How to Make Kombucha tutorial.
Raspberry Cream Filled Chocolates/One Green Planet
Candy is one of the most over-processed foods available. It’s been heated and melted, flattened, sugars have been added, and even some candies have added oils. If candy is one thing you just can’t give up, try making your own. If you’re not into making your own candy (let’s face it, you’re already making your own chips, bread, and bubbly juice!), then try simply having a bar of dark chocolate on hand for those sugar cravings. Dark chocolate is rich in nutrients, antioxidants, and flavonols linking this delightful treat to reduced risk of heart disease, lower LDL “bad” cholesterol and higher HDL “good” cholesterol, improved blood flow, reduce blood pressure, and even can protect you from sun damage. When purchasing dark chocolate, always aim for organic, fair trade brands that are 70 percent or higher such as this Endangered Species Chocolate, Pascha Organic Dark Chocolate, or this Lily’s Sweets Extra Dark Chocolate.
Freeze Your Leftovers
One of the most virulent sources of ultra-processed chemicals is in frozen dinners. From vegetable oils to added sugars, these are a must-remove item when you’re seeking to rid yourself of processed foods. Yet, after a long day of work, when you don’t have the energy to prepare a healthy dinner, where do you turn if you don’t have those nifty frozen dinners?
There are lots of tips on prepping and freezing food for the week or month, yet the easiest way I found is simply make extra when you do have time. The next time you know you’ll be cooking dinner for yourself or your family, double the recipe. Whatever extra there is, pop in some glass containers and hide it away in the freezer.
In order to rid your house of all ultra-processed foods, we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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