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Processed Foods and Health: What the Research Says


What do you think about when you hear the term “processed foods”?

Do you think of steaming carrots? Do you see foods in shiny and crinkly plastic bags? 

If you answered the first, then your answer is correct. The latter answer will also be correct. 

A processed food is any food that has been subject to a chemical or mechanical change in order to improve nutrition, taste or shelf-life. 

This means that actions such as,

  • Cooking
  • Drying
  • Peeling or cutting
  • Cleaning 

...are all processes that make foods easier to digest, safe, longer-lasting, and enjoyable. 

What is the difference between steamed carrots and bags of chips?

To distinguish between food which has been subject to minimal mechanical or physical changes and those that have been industrialized and foods with many chemical additives, the term "ultra-processed" was created. Sometimes, minimally processed foods are food that has only been subject to basic processing, such as cleaning and cooking. 

We will discuss what constitutes ultra-processed food and the findings of research regarding the health benefits associated with regular consumption. 


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What is Ultra-Processed Food?

The most common terms for ultra-processed food are junk foods and convenience foods. People use these terms to refer to edible substances, which can cause health problems if they become a large part of a person's overall diet.

Ultra-Processed Foods, also known as junk food and convenience foods, is the scientific term. Ultra-Processed Foods (UPF) refers to food that has the potential to cause health problems when it is a significant part of a diet.

Researchers define UPF as follows:

 “Ultra-processed foods are formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, that result from a series of industrial processes (hence ‘ultra-processed).”

In other words, ultra-processed foods contain ingredients that are usually only found on food ingredient labels but that you won’t be able to buy on their own in supermarkets. 

These ingredients are often called additives and/or preservatives. They usually come from several industrial processes. 

The additives make foods last longer, enhance taste and texture, as well as increase or decrease nutritional value.

The foods can also be made more palatable by adding different kinds of salt, sugar, fats, and oils. 

The Making of Convenience Foods

Possible trigger warning: This section includes a detailed description of the processing of vegetable and animal parts.

A group of researchers The generalization of ultra-processed food is described in this section. We summarize this process as follows:

  1. Whole foods are fractionated into sugars, oils and fats, proteins, starches, and fiber. Starch and sugar are often high in the initial products, such as corn, wheat or soya, sugarcane, sugarcane, or honey. Another common product is animal parts.
  2. The first steps in the production of whole food and other products are to be followed. Some parts of animals can be chopped or pureed. Some vegetable products can be subject to hydrolysis, hydrogenation and other chemical modifications.
  3. These food ingredients are often made from very little or no whole foods. They can be combined using extrusions, molding and pre-frying.
  4. To make food more palatable, hyper-palatable, or visually appealing, colors, glaze agents, emulsifiers and carbonating agents, as well as flavors, flavor enhancers and gelling agents, are all added. In other words, they make your mouth and brain say, “Yum!”
  5. Chemicals and other ingredients are added to keep bacteria and fungi from growing in the foods so that they remain innocuous (free from pathogens) for significant periods of time after manufacturing.
  6. The packaging of food products is sophisticated and uses synthetic materials to serve two functions: safety and marketing. 


The Health Effects of Diets Rich in Ultra-Processed Foods (Convenience Foods)

From the perspective of long-term physiological health outcomes, there are several research-backed reasons why you may want to support your clients in limiting, but not necessarily eliminating, the consumption of ultra-processed foods. 

  1. Foods that are ultra-processed undergo final stages to become palatable and highly-palatable. hyper-palatable foods may trigger addictive or compulsive eating behaviors
  2. Ultra-processed foods are very energy-dense and high in added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium and lower in fiber. This may be of particular concern in people with metabolic disorders like diabetes, digestive disorders, PCOS, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and others. 
  3. Diets high in ultra-processed foods exceed the upper limits for fat, saturated fat, free sugars, and sodium, and they do not meet fiber needs. These foods can cause nutritional deficiencies. 
  4. Diets high in ultra-processed foods are more likely to be deficient in protein, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, niacin, thiamine, and riboflavin, as well as zinc, iron, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. 

Decreasing the proportion of the diet made up of ultra-processed foods and increasing the proportion of the diet made up of meals made with processed culinary ingredients (like dried herbs and ground spices) on minimally processed foods could significantly improve the quality of the diet

Is it a good idea to reduce the intake of highly processed foods? 

Your clients' food choices are not limited by their diet. 

Food access, economic limitations, and the complexities of the social experience of eating all influence eating behaviors

Inducing shame is an ineffective method of promoting health behavior change. Remember that foods are not inherently “good” or “bad.” So, avoid villainizing foods or eating habits when working with clients. 

All foods can be considered food, no matter what their origins or production methods. A bag of chips, a doughnut with cream and a few other treats every now and then will not be harmful unless the person is suffering from a metabolic disorder like diabetes.

The problem with eating high amounts of certain nutrients and not having enough nutrients in our diets can impact our health. However, this is a result of our eating habits, not of food.

It is very difficult to adopt and maintain healthy eating habits. It is not intentional to cause injury to oneself if someone eats a lot of processed foods. 

Psychological factors like trauma, social factors like discrimination and a lack of representation, and environmental factors like food deserts and food insecurity all affect how people make decisions regarding what to eat. This is a problem that affects marginalized populations more than others. 

It is crucial to understand the complex world of nutrition and food as coaches who help clients make and maintain healthy lifestyle choices. Utilizing techniques like trauma-informed motivational interviewing can reveal realistic ways to help clients make choices that will improve their physical and mental health in the long term. 

Main Takeaways

When you talk to your clients, words matter. Confusion could result from using the word processed food when in reality you mean ultra-processed. 

A diet high in processed foods can have negative effects on your health. But, it is also important to be sensitive to the environmental and sociocultural factors that influence your clients’ choices.

Remember that there are no “good” or “bad” foods. Foods are simply foods. Convenience foods and ultra-processed foods may be what your client needs to sustain their family's food supply due to lack of access or time. It is important to be open to learning about barriers that limit access to less processed and fresh foods and, together with your client, construct realistic ways to meet their family’s needs. 


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