Soft drinks, ketchup, jams, tinned fruits and potato chips – all these taste delicious and are convenient, but it is important to note that they are examples of processed foods and large quantities may be harmful to your health.
According to UK’s NHS, processed food is any food that has been altered in some way during preparation. Food processing can be as basic as freezing, canning, baking, and drying.
“Processed food is not “real food”; it is food that has been modified by chemical processes and contains additives, flavorings, emulsifiers and stabilizers. The food is then assembled into ready-to-eat hyper palatable food called ‘Cosmetic food’. The easiest way to judge how processed the food is to look at the length of the food label at the back of the packet. The longer the list, the more processed is the food in it,” Dr Tejal Lathia, Consultant Endocrinologist, Hiranandani Hospital, Vashi- A Fortis Network Hospital.
Natural sugars are found in fruit, cereals and vegetables along with fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and thus, they are healthy. Refined or processed sugar, however, lacks these accompanying vital nutrients and is found in most processed foods, even those that are not considered sweet like ready-to-eat soups and ketchup.
Notably, processed food includes packaged breads, breakfast cereals, confectionery (sweets), biscuits, pastries, buns, cakes, industrial chips and french fries, soft and fruit drinksor packed juices, packaged pre-prepared meals (frozen meals) and reconstituted meat products.
As per the doctor, processed foods are harmful because they contain higher amounts of unhealthy fat, sugar and salt.
The extra calories – termed ’empty’ calories because they lack nutritional value – consumed in the form of fat and sugar, from processed food, leads to weight gain and high blood sugar. Excess sodium, that comes from salt, in this type of food raises blood pressure and causes water retention. The combination of high blood sugar and blood pressure with obesity increases the risk of heart diseases and cancer.
Furthermore, most processed foods also lack fiber and protein, which are necessary for satiety or the feeling of being full after a meal. Failure to feel full results in consumption of large quantities of the processed food at one time. Lastly, these processed foods contain little to no vitamins and minerals. If a large part of a person’s diet consists of processed foods, they can suffer from lack of important vitamins and minerals.
“A study from Brazil showed that preschool children who consumed excess ultra processed food (40 percent of their daily calorie intake) had increased waist circumference by the time they entered primary school. Two large European studies have studied the link between consumption of processed foods and health. One study found that people who consumed even 10 percent more processed food, had increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.
“The second study showed that those who consumed 4 or more servings of processed food a day had a 60 percent increased chance of dying, when compared with those who consumed less than 2 servings of processed food per day”.
In addition to the poor nutritional quality of the food, substances formed from additives during the production, processing and storage as well as contact of food with the packaging have unknown effects. The NutriNet-Sante study from France found an increase in overall cancer risk, as well as breast cancer risk by 10 percent for each 10 percent increase in consumption of processed food.
In India, consumption of packaged food is on the rise paralleling an increase in overweight and obese children and adults. Strict policies need to be in place for food labelling, tackling the availability of packaged foods near schools and colleges as well as increase in taxation for companies manufacturing processed foods. Only then can we stem the tide of increasing obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and death.