What makes food processed and why is it unhealthy?

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You constantly hear about how processed food is bad for your health and should be avoided. But what is it and why is it so bad?

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20 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

it depends on what kind of processed foods are being discussed.

most generically – it means the ingredients are so altered most nutritional value has been removed. so you arent giving your body all of the stuff it needs to operate properly.

Anonymous 0 Comments

There’s a lot of things you can do to “process” food. Not all of them are bad, but some of them do make the food less healthy. Some common ones are stripping out fiber and adding lots of sugar or salt.

Anonymous 0 Comments

processed is anything that you didnt pull from the ground and put in your mouth – even if you buy a pack of strawberries they’ve gone through a *process* of being cleaned and weighed and packaged, whole wheat flour goes through a process of milling, pasta is of course processed to get consistent shapes and thickness

what people usually mean when they say “processed food” is ready made ingredients (can of diced tomatoes) or already prepared meals (frozen lasagna) because they tend to have added sugars, salt, and fat, which are the things that aren’t good for your health when you have them in excess

Anonymous 0 Comments

What makes food processed is that humans have done something to it, and it’s unhealthy because it makes healthy-living advocates a lot of money to claim that it’s unhealthy.

There is a LOT of misinformation in the dietary world, most of it designed to get you to spend more money on food and everything surrounding food than is necessary. The knee-jerk rejection of “processed” food is one of them.

The simple truth is, there isn’t a simple and easy way to determine whether something is good or bad for you (barring obvious things like poisonous or contaminated food). It’s always going to be a case-by-case basis as to whether something is safe or not, and there’s a significant amount of fear-mongering that goes on in the dietary space – for obvious reasons. Eating something puts it directly into your body, in a way that maximizes your chance of experiencing harmful effects.

And many processed foods are in fact unhealthy, because some of what the processing does is make the food more palatable. That could involve something as simple as removing bitter and inedible compounds, or it could involve stripping out fiber and replacing it with simple sugars and flavorings to make the product more desirable and more likely to cause you to buy it again.

But it’s not the fact that the food was processed that makes it unhealthy – it’s what the processing was. Grinding up wheat kernels to make flour is processing it. Boiling down sugar cane mash to extract cane sugar is processing. Pasteurizing milk to make it safe to drink is processing it. Stuffing a recipe full of sugar and salt is also processing food.

Basically – don’t reject food because it was processed. Reject food because the final product that you actually eat is unhealthy. They may sound similar, but they’re two very different concepts. Processed food can be healthy, unprocessed food can be unhealthy, and the only way to know is to research the actual food in question.

There is often a correlation between heavily processed foods and health content, but it’s not a direct overlap.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Processing is altering from its natural state. And it’s not inherently bad. For example cooking food is a type of processing.

The problem tends to be that generally pre processed foods tend to be unhealthy. They add sugar and salt and shelf stable fats, they add preservatives and artifical flavors and colors, they often use worse ingredients to cut costs but still charge you more than if you made it at home with better ingredients. They extract just the components they want leaving behind some of the healthier fibers and vitamins.

Anonymous 0 Comments

In very general terms you’re talking about 2 phases:

1) actions that make the good more shelf stable

2) actions intended to make the food more palatable when the first batch has damaged the taste or texture. 

The first one can be simple things like boiling and canning but it’s also going to be ingredient selection, additives meant to preserve the food and so on.  Often these processes strip some of the nutritional value as they go, and many object to added preservatives, emulsifoers, etc… or just the starting recipe composition that lends to something shelf stable like avoiding actual dairy, eggs, etc…. even if you’re dealing with foods that start unhealthy there’s a reason a homemade cookie will change a lot over a week but an oreo doesnt.  Peanut butters will have emulsifiers to keep the oil from separating, all kinds of stuff. 

The second one….well if you cook off the good stuff along with the things that ruin shelf stability or just make something that doesn’t taste as good because you didn’t want to use butter or eggs now you need to make it taste good.  What’s the easiest, cheapest way to give people happy chemicals when they eat your food? Add a ton of sugar and salt.  That’s…not great health wise.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Simple rule: the stuff on the outside edges of the supermarket (produce/meat/dairy) tends to be less processed than the rest.

Anonymous 0 Comments

This is a hard ELI5 because it’s many questions folded into 1 question with 2 parts (and 1 of which is leading vs neutrally phrased).

Processed food is not inherently unhealthy. Anything that changes a raw ingredient, including physical manipulation, is processing.

So if you cut up a potato and boil it, you are processing the potato. Similarly, if you chop up tomatoes and vacuum seal them in cans, you are processing the tomatoes. If you take all the extra beef from a cow’s carcass, morselize them, and make them into beef patties, you are processing the beef. If you combine, milk, flour, eggs, sugar and bake a cake, you are processing all those ingredients and making a cake. None of these are inherently unhealthy.

Food scientists define the level of processing and what is “unhealthy” are the foods that fall into the “ultra-processed” category. It’s these foods that are the focus of the discussion.

Ultra-processed foods = industrial formulation of ingredients, with many processes, chemicals, and ingredients that would not be normally used in a home or restaurant kitchen and are far removed from the original fresh ingredients.

Go back to my cake example — milk, flour, eggs, sugar, cocoa, butter, etc. and I bake it in an oven at 350 F for 30 minutes. Even if I bake it on an industrial level, the cake is processed, but not ultra-processed. The ingredients themselves are processed as well (grains ground down into flour, milkfat churned into butter, sugar extracted from sugarcane), but they are not ultra-processed — they are directly sourced from an original fresh ingredient.

But if add hydrogenated oils instead of butter, sugar alcohols or substitutes instead of sugar, chocolate flavoring and caramel color instead of cocoa, preservatives, alternative milks (like nut milks with emulsifiers), alternative flours, etc., etc. the cake is now ultra-processed because all of the ingredients are now far removed from what would originally be used to make the cake. You cannot easily obtain any of these ingredients without the help from Dupont or 3M chemical factory.

And now because the ultra-processed cake is so far from the processed cake, it’s unhealthy because it’s just a simulation of the original cake. And the ingredients themselves may cause increased harm compared to the original ingredients. The hydrogenated oils increase risk of heart disease over butter, the sugar alcohols/substitutes may also increase the risk of metabolic disorders over regular sugar, flavorings/colorings/etc. could all be carcinogenic. vs just cocoa powder, etc. etc. etc.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Here’s an example. Ever notice that lemon juice has no vitamin C? Well it should, shouldn’t it? It’s because lemon juice is pasteurized with heat, and that process destroys the delicate vitamin C molecule. That is one small example, and there are many more. Enzymes are another thing which get destroyed in processed foods, and those enzymes would have helped our bodies break down food for absorption. Because of that, there is more of a burden on the pancreas to create digestive enzymes.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Processed food just means food that has been put through a set of actions (a process). It’s a very broad and difficult to define term.

Consider different ways that you can eat an apple.

Take an apple off of the tree, give it a wash and start eating. That’s *un-processed* food. (Well, technically the washing can be counted as a type of processing. Lines are starting to blur already.)

Take an apple, wash it (just assume this step from now on) put on some food-grade wax to protect it during shipping, and that’s *minimally processed*, but by some definitions so are frozen fruits (apple isn’t commonly frozen, though).

Take the apple, peel it, mash it up, put it into a jar, that’s applesauce, a *processed* food. You could also slice it up and add some preservatives to keep it from browning, that’s another processed form of apple.

Take the apple, cut it up, add some sugar, spices, bake it into a pie crust, and well a homemade pie is more *processed*, but arguably not into the final category of:

*Ultra-processed* would be taking the apple and adding sugar, spices, thickeners, stabilizers, natural and/or artificial flavors, to the point where the Brand-Name-Here fruit pie more resembles a candy bar than the apple it started as.

As you can see, there are some blurry lines in what counts as unprocessed, minimally processed, processed, and ultra-processed (the most common classifications I can find online).

There’s nothing inherently unhealthy about any of this. Eating raw grains of wheat isn’t healthier than eating a loaf of bread. Eating a fresh green bean may not be healthier than eating one that’s been frozen (depending on a number of factors, mainly how long it took them reach your plate). Eating an apple pie is healthy, in moderation.

However, ultra-processed foods are more likely to have unbalanced nutrition. They tend to be high in salt, fat, and sugar, and they very often focus on flavor instead of nutrition. There’s nothing wrong with eating potato chips, but eating nothing but potato chips will lead to problems.