All the Health Risks of Processed Foods -- In Just a Few Quick, Convenient Bites
Every day, 7 percent of the U.S. population visits a McDonald's,
and 20-25 percent eat fast food of some kind, says Steven
Gortmaker, professor of society, human development, and health
at the Harvard School of Public Health. As for children, 30
percent between the ages of 4 and 19 eat fast food on any
But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Americans get processed
food not only from fast-food restaurants but also from their
neighborhood grocery stores. As it stands, about 90 percent
of the money that Americans spend on food is used to buy--that's
Think about it ... if it comes in a box, can, bag or carton,
it's processed. The fact that these foods are so readily available,
and, often, of such poor quality, has led some, like associate
professor of pediatrics at Harvard David Ludwig, to say that
they're actually discouraging healthy eating and leading to
a "toxic environment."
"There's the incessant advertising and marketing of
the poorest quality foods imaginable. To address this epidemic,
you'd want to make healthful foods widely available, inexpensive,
and convenient, and unhealthful foods relatively less so.
Instead, we've done the opposite," says Ludwig.
Processed foods have, indeed, been implicated in a host of
chronic diseases and health conditions that are currently
plaguing the nation. What follows is just a taste of the risks
processed foods may present to your health.
Processed foods vastly outweigh fresh foods at most
The World Health Organization (WHO) says processed foods
are to blame for the sharp rise in obesity (and chronic disease)
seen around the world.
In one study by Ludwig and colleagues, children who ate processed
fast foods in a restaurant ate 126 more calories than on days
they did not. Over the course of a year, this could translate
into 13 pounds of weight gain just from fast food.
"The food industry would love to explain obesity as
a problem of personal responsibility, since it takes the onus
off them for marketing fast food, soft drinks, and other high-calorie,
low-quality products," Ludwig says.
However, "When you have calories that are incredibly
cheap, in a culture where 'bigger is better,' that's a dangerous
combination," says Walter Willett, M.D., D.P.H., professor
of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public
"In the last 50 years, the extent of processing has
increased so much that prepared breakfast cereals--even without
added sugar--act exactly like sugar itself ...
As far as our hormones and metabolism are concerned, there's
no difference between a bowl of unsweetened corn flakes and
a bowl of table sugar. Starch is 100-percent glucose [table
sugar is half glucose, half fructose] and our bodies can digest
it into sugar instantly," says Ludwig.
"We are not adapted to handle fast-acting carbohydrates.
Glucose is the gold standard of energy metabolism. The brain
is exquisitely dependent on having a continuous supply of
glucose: too low a glucose level poses an immediate threat
to survival. [But] too high a level causes damage to tissues,
as with diabetes," he continued.
Many processed foods contain trans fatty acids (TFA), a dangerous
type of fat. According to the American Heart Association,
"TFAs tend to raise
LDL ("bad") cholesterol and lower HDL ("good")
cholesterol ... These changes may increase the risk
of heart disease."
Further, most processed foods are extremely high in salt,
another blow to the heart. One-half cup of Campbell's Chicken
Noodle Soup, for instance, has 37 percent of the daily-recommended
amount of sodium.
"Probably the single fastest way to reduce strokes in
this country is to halve the amount of salt that's added to
processed food," says Tim Lang, professor of food policy
at the City University, London.
A seven-year study of close to 200,000 people by the University
of Hawaii found that people who ate the most processed meats
(hot dogs, sausage) had a 67 percent higher risk of pancreatic
cancer than those who ate little or no meat products.
A Canadian study of over 400 men aged 50 to 80 found similar
results. Men whose eating habits fell into the "processed"
pattern (processed meats, red meat, organ meats, refined grains,
vegetable oils and soft drinks) had a significantly higher
risk of prostate cancer than men in the other groups. Men
who ate the most processed foods had a 2.5-fold increased
prostate cancer risk.
Yet another study published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology,
Mile Markers, and Prevention found that refined carbohydrates
like white flour, sugar and high fructose corn syrup is also
linked to cancer. The study of more than 1,800 women in Mexico
found that those who got 57 percent or more of their total
energy intake from refined carbohydrates had a 220 percent
higher risk of breast cancer than women who ate more balanced
Processed meats like hot dogs, lunch meats, bacon and
other sausages have been linked to various forms of
Acrylamide, a carcinogenic substance that forms when foods
are heated at high temperatures, such as during baking or
frying, is also a concern. Processed foods like French fries
and potato chips have shown elevated levels of the substance,
according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest
"I estimate that acrylamide causes several thousand
cancers per year in Americans," said Clark University
research professor Dale Hattis.
Food Additives: Unknown Effects
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains a list of
over 3,000 chemicals that are added to the processed food
supply. These compounds do various things to food: add color,
stabilize, texturize, preserve, sweeten, thicken, add flavor,
soften, emulsify and more.
Some of these additives have never been tested for safety--and
require no government approval--but instead belong to the
FDA's "Generally Recognized as Safe" (GRAS) list.
An item is "safe," as defined by Congress, if there
is "reasonable certainty that no harm will result from
use of an additive."
Some compounds that are known to be toxic to humans or animals
are also allowed, though at the level of 1/100th of the amount
that is considered harmful.
Potential side effects from the additives vary, and are controversial.
For just one common food additive, monosodium
glutamate (MSG), for example, the following symptoms have
As is the case with most food additives, some people have
no side effects, but others may become ill.
Flavoring Can Cause Lung Disease: Diacetyl, a Chemical Additive
to Watch Out For
of Fritos, Doritos, Cheetos, or Tostitos ... Consider Edamame
Magazine: The Way We Eat Now
Journal of Cancer September 10, 2005; 116(4):592-8
Heart Association: Know Your Fats
News: Eat Less Processed Food, Experts Say
Target: Processed Meat Consumption and Pancreatic Cancer Risk
Are What You Eat
Food Information Council (IFIC)/FDA
Target: Cancer and Refined Carbohydrates
for Science in the Public Interest