Processed foods are known to be unhealthy food products that have negative effects on people. Ultra-processed foods, in particular, have been linked to higher risks of developing heart disease, and an earlier death, according to a study by Italian researchers published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
In a longitudinal study, they followed over 24,000 people aged 35 and above for ten years to evaluate their eating habits. The researchers found that participants with high processed foods diet had a higher risk of dying earlier due to cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and stroke. The data suggests that the more processed foods people eat, the higher the increase in risks.
They believe that it must have something to do with sugar that is added to the processed foods. However, it is not only sugar that is added. There is also oil and salt, which could also be attributed to the health risks. So it is not exactly clear how processed foods can be so dangerous to the body.
But a study from the National Institutes of Health in 2019 discovered that those who eat ultra-processed foods consume more calories which leads to excessive weight gain. Moreover, the study suggests that the body absorbs processed foods quickly and that there is something different in how those foods interact with key hormones that make people eat more.
On the other hand, some researchers attribute the increasing number of cancer cases and early deaths to packaged and ready-made foods.
Defining Processed Foods
The most common processed foods usually studied are the ultra-processed foods that are generally factory-made that come with additives and preservatives, such as thickeners or sweeteners. According to Business Insider’s report, these types of foods are either packaged in a tin can or plastics, with some of them even labeled with “high fructose corn syrup” in their list of ingredients.
According to Italian researchers, processed foods include processed meats, pizza, and cakes. But processed foods are not equally made, like the cheesy quesadilla which is still considered processed food.
To properly classify these processed foods, scientists and nutritionists often use the NOVA food rating system, which is divided into four categories. These are the unprocessed or minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed food and drinks.
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Classification of Processed Foods
- Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods- These foods include fruits, vegetables, seeds, roots, and other edible parts of a plant or animal, as well as fungi and algae that were not treated with additives. They could be fresh, frozen, or fermented. Some examples of foods under this category are dry beans, grains, fresh or dried mushrooms, meat, dairy products, seafood, plain yogurt, nuts, and spices.
- Processed Culinary Ingredients- These are unprocessed foods that are taken a step higher in production. Examples are honey from honeycombs, sugar from sugar cane, and syrup from maple trees.
- Processed Foods- These foods are produced by adding sugar, salt, and fat to preserve them. Some examples of foods under this category are canned fruits, fermented bread, alcohol, pickles, cheese, and salted nuts.
- Ultra-Processed Foods- Also known as ready-to-eat food items, foods under this category are produced by breaking down raw ingredients and treating them with thickeners, additives, glazes, and colors. Some of these foods are even fried before packing or may contain high fructose corn syrup, protein isolates, and interesterified oils. These foods include candies, soft drinks, mass-produced bread, margarine, energy drinks, chicken nuggets, and hotdogs.
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