Why is the processing of foods concerning? Are all processed foods bad for you?
Processing is not necessarily a bad thing. For some foods, like whole grains or oats, processing (i.e cleaning, dehulling, kilning, cutting, steam tempering, flaking and cooling) may be required for consumption and quicker cooking. Fresh fruits like blueberries, pre-cut vegetables, fresh-cut greens, and roasted nuts are also examples of minimally processed foods that can be part of a healthful diet; these are foods that are often prepped for convenience and processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness.
Ultra-processed foods, however, are foods that have undergone significant processing and typically contain ingredients that are chemically formulated from food-derived substances. They’re also largely devoid of the foods that occur in their whole form in nature. Examples include sodas, hot dogs, frozen meals, flavored yogurt, instant ramen, potato chips.
Overall, despite often being marketed as healthier diet foods, ultra-processed foods are typically lower in nutritional value, and contain ingredients that are potentially harmful, potentially addictive, or prone to over-consumption.
What has this recent research shown about how ultra-processed foods may impact our health?
Among the Lancet study’s findings was that an incremental 10% increase in consumption of ultra-processed food was linked to a 2% increase in being diagnosed with any cancer, and a 6% increase in dying from cancer of any kind.
Then specifically, with each additional 10% increase in consumption of ultra-processed food, there was shown a 19% increased risk for ovarian cancer and 30% increased risk of dying from ovarian cancer.
The study also found a 16% increase in dying from breast cancer with each 10% increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods.
We have preliminary data from other studies establishing links between ultra-processed food and other things besides cancer, like cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes, and obesity, among others. Today we’re seeing a lot of chronic diseases continue to escalate, and ultra-processed foods may be playing a role.
But while more research is being done to examine how processed foods affect our bodies, we do have plenty of data showing that whole food, unprocessed dietary patterns — which include those from the Blue Zones, the Mediterranean diet, the diabetes prevention diet, the whole plant-based diet, and an anti-inflammatory diet, for example — are all associated with better health.
And that’s probably due to their combination of emphasizing whole foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lentils, beans and nuts, which are full of macronutrients, micronutrients, beneficial phytochemicals, and fiber, in combination with moderating ultra-processed foods.