Processed foods have a stronghold on Western diets purely because of their convenience and relatively low cost — and it helps that oftentimes they’re pretty tasty too. But recent studies show you may be paying a higher price than you think for that convenience.
According to two new, large-scale studies of people in the United States and Italy published in the British medical journal The BMJ, eating a lot of ultra-processed foods significantly increases men’s risk of colorectal cancer and can lead to heart disease and early death in both men and women. That can be extremely concerning news especially when you consider that children and teens in the United States now get more than two-thirds of their calories from ultra-processed foods.
But what exactly is ultra-processed food? Food processing is anything that is done to a raw food item to make it ideal for consumption.
“A food is considered processed when it is biologically, mechanically, or chemically manipulated to achieve certain qualities such as being safe-to-eat, extended shelf life, flavor and texture uniformity, etc.,” says Hai Nguyen, a dietetic intern at Texas Health Sports Medicine.
She adds that some of the additives in processed foods to achieve these qualities can be harmful to your health.
“It’s not the food that’s damaging, but rather what is done to the food prior to you eating it,” she says.
Keep in mind, most of the food we purchase nowadays has undergone some degree of processing, and not all processed foods are bad for your health. So it’s good to understand the difference between mechanical and chemical processing.
Mechanical processing pertains to the act of heating up, breaking down or pasteurizing foods in a mechanical way, such as grinding beef for hamburger meat or pasteurizing cow’s milk to kill off any harmful bacteria. Mechanical processing does not add chemicals or additional ingredients to the item, so the food does not tend to lose any of its nutritional value.
However, chemical processing tends to introduce artificial substances such as flavoring agents, colors and sweeteners. Many times, something will also be added to help increase the shelf-life of the item. These chemically processed foods are often referred to as highly processed or ultra-processed.
Some examples of ultra-processed foods include:
- Frozen or ready meals
- Baked goods, including pizza, cakes, and pastries
- Packaged bread
- Processed cheese products
- Breakfast cereal
- Crackers and chips
- Candy and ice cream
- Instant noodles and soups
- Reconstituted or processed meats, such as sausages, hot dogs, lunch meat, nuggets, fish fingers, and bacon
- Sodas and other sweetened drinks
“Several studies have shown a correlation between ultra-processed foods and negative health effects,” Nguyen says. “One study showed even just a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in your diet was associated with a significant increase in the risks of breast cancer and overall cancer. But now we have these studies that shed a bit more light onto the issue.”
The US-based study examined the diets of over 200,000 men and women for up to 28 years and found a link between ultra-processed foods and colorectal cancer in men, but not women. Colorectal cancer is the third-most diagnosed cancer in the US and the third-most leading cause of cancer-related death in both genders, according to the American Cancer Society.
But why the disparity between men and women in this study? Researchers believe obesity, sex hormones, and metabolic hormones can play a crucial role, however, they weren’t able to pinpoint an exact reason for the difference.
One proposed reason for the difference was the idea that women possibly chose “healthier” ultra-processed foods compared to their male counterparts. As we mentioned earlier, some processed foods are healthier than others, such as whole-grain foods with little or no added sugars, yogurt and dairy products. The study did find that eating more ultra-processed dairy foods — such as yogurt — was associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer in women.
However, women did have a higher risk for colorectal cancer if they consumed more ready-to-eat or heat-and-eat dishes such as pizza or frozen meals. Men were more likely to have a higher risk of bowel cancer if they ate a lot of meat, poultry, or seafood-based ready-to-eat products and sugar-sweetened beverages.
The second study followed more than 22,000 people for a dozen years in the Molise region of Italy. The study, which began in March 2005, was designed to assess risk factors for cancer as well asheart and brain disease.
Moreover, an analysis published in The BMJ sought to see how foods low in nutritional value compared to ultra-processed foods when it came to the development of chronic disease and early death. Researchers found that while both types of foods independently increased the risk of early death, especially from cardiovascular diseases, ultra-processed foods out surpassed nutrient-poor foods when it came to overall contribution. That shouldn’t come as too much of a shock since many nutritionally poor foods are also highly processed. In fact, over 80% of the foods classified by the guidelines followed in the study as nutritionally unhealthy were also ultra-processed.
“This suggests that the contribution doesn’t have to just do with the food being low in nutritional value, but also the fact that the food item is most likely highly processed as well,” explains Nguyen.
How to Identify Ultra-Processed Foods and Healthier Swaps
If almost everything you buy at the store has undergone some form of processing, how can you know just how much processing has been done to it and if it’s mechanical or chemical? Nguyen says any easy way is to read the label.
“If it seems like there are more ingredients than necessary or there are ingredients that are hard to pronounce, chances are, it is a processed food,” she says. “Another simple approach is to consider what foods can be grown naturally and eaten or be altered slightly to create the product.”
For example, fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, nut butters, seeds, guacamole, hummus, and eggs can be grown naturally or very minimally processed to create the product. On the flip side, soft drinks, cookies, cakes, and candy cannot be grown naturally, and even if they contain organic or natural ingredients, they still require processing to get to their final form.
Highly processed foods will also most likely have large amounts of sugar and/or sodium, and often require little to no preparation in order to be consumed, such as just needing to be zapped in the microwave or reheated, Nguyen adds.
While it can be hard to let go of these foods because of their convenience, taste and low cost, especially at a time when food costs are hitting record highs, Nguyen says nowadays a lot of grocers offer up options that are still highly convenient while retaining nutrition.
“Try foods that are already prepared at your local grocery stores. Most will have fresh rotisserie chicken hot and ready to eat, as well as healthy sides like roasted vegetables and rice,” she says. “There are even fruits that are precut and portioned. Produce like carrots, spinach, broccoli, and sugar snap peas are readily available prewashed and ready to eat right out of the bag.”
Another great option is to head to the freezer section and opt for veggies that can be microwaved straight in the bag. A lot of times, frozen vegetables are picked at the peak of freshness, to ensure you’re getting the most nutritional value. If you’re looking for less processed meats, look for fresh cuts found at the meat counter, which are often just mechanically processed. If you can, try to find a local butcher who gets their supply from local ranches as well. If you’re looking for a good swap for lunch meat, try tuna salad, chicken breast or even hard-boiled eggs.
Nguyen offers up these additional swaps:
- Salad dressings like ranch: try olive oil and balsamic vinegar or make your own Ranch dressing with plain Greek yogurt and Ranch seasoning mix
- French fries: try baked potatoes
- Ice cream: try fruit smoothies
- Potato chips: try carrot chips and hummus
- Croutons: try nuts or seeds
- Sugary breakfast cereal: try oatmeal with fresh fruit
- Microwave popcorn: try freshly made popcorn topped where you can control the toppings and flavorings
While processed foods may be a timesaving option, healthier swaps can be just as convenient and better for you, but remember — not all processed foods are created equal. Learn how to read labels and prioritize items with short ingredient lists or that have ingredients you can pronounce or that are not complicated. And while it may take some planning, cooking at home and preparing your meals is better for you in the long run.
“Cooking at home is better for your health and wallet when compared to most processed and all ultra-processed foods,” Nguyen adds. “Planning ahead, preparing, and portioning meals beforehand is a great way to nix the reliance on convenience foods.”