3 Ways Processed Foods Are Hurting Us

Today’s refined, processed and preserved diet misses out on quite a few key health metrics and our overconsumption of processed foods is a significant contributing factor as to why. Unfortunately, this trend is increasing across the globe. But how exactly are processed foods hurting our health? We’ll discuss how processed foods are directly contributing to poor nutrition on global scale.

1. Unlabeled Carcinogens: The Dangers of Processed Meats

What’s more American than hot dogs? Well, unfortunately, the original hot dog came from Frankfurt, Germany, and most likely had to be preserved to make the trip. Now, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (AIRC)’s review of more than 800 studies, each hot dog you eat per day will increase your risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. Based on this review, the AIRC decided that processed meats are a Class 1 carcinogen. What does that mean? That means they have determined that the link between processed meats and colorectal cancer is as sure as the link between tobacco and lung cancer, or asbestos and mesothelioma.

According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is “the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States” and is the second- and third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and women, respectively. In fact, men face a lifetime risk of 1 in 21 for developing colorectal cancer.

Hot dogs aren’t only  an American food. Canada and New Zealand to name just two other countries have their own recipes for serving hot dogs. The good news is that companies like Kraft Heinz announced earlier this year that they are removing the nitrite and nitrate preservatives from their Oscar Mayers hot dogs, opting for acceptable preservatives such as celery seed powder and sea salt.

But it’s not just hot dogs. All processed meats are grouped into this carcinogenic category. That includes luncheon meats. I can’t help but watch in awe at the grocery store at the ease of buying known carcinogens for consumption. Cigarettes are sold with a skull and crossbones on the packaging, but we make our children’s sandwiches stuffed with a Class 1 carcinogen every day. I should know. As a kid, my lunch was regularly prepared this way for years.

And to throw fuel on the fire, the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) has found through its Continuous Update Project that processed meats also likely increase the risk of developing stomach cancer. To help reduce your risk of colorectal cancer and stomach cancer, the AICR recommends limiting intake of red meats and completely eliminating processed meats from your diet.

2. Too Much Sugar: The Oh-So-Sweet Elephant in the Room

It’s difficult to address processed foods without discussing sugar. And there’s a reason for it. Processed foods are often loaded with it—from cereal to peanut butter. But one of the biggest sources of excess sugar consumption is through sugar-sweetened beverages. According to the CDC:

Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) or sugary drinks are leading sources of added sugars in the American diet. Frequently drinking sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with weight gain/obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, non-alcoholic liver disease, tooth decay and cavities, and gout, a type of arthritis.

Sugar may not be the only contributor to these ailments, but this list is the who’s who of morbidity and mortality both in the U.S. and the world. That’s why the World Health Organization also issued recommendations to drastically reduce sugar intake across the globe.

3. Not Enough Fiber: More Roughage, Please

Greater fiber intake is associated with a host of beneficial health metrics, including a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some gastrointestinal diseases, to name a few.

Unfortunately, according to survey data from The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, most Americans eat far less than half of the daily recommended levels, and it’s not because we don’t eat a lot of carbs. In addition to low intake of fruits and vegetables, part of the problem is that much of our grain consumption comes from refined grains.

The process of refining grains also removes much of the fiber, as well as vitamins and minerals. As recommended by the American Heart Association, you should seek fiber from foods over fiber supplements when possible.

The Simple, Obvious Solution

Cut out processed foods. While there may be some processed foods that won’t do you much harm, much of the population doesn’t spend their shopping time sifting through nutrition labels and researching their consumption. But to fully understand the difference between healthy food and processed food, self-health educate yourself with Why Your Doctor Offers Nutritional Supplements. And learn to shop healthy with Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is! Guide to Healthy Food Shopping. Also, understanding your dietary intake is one of the best health practices for becoming more aware of what you consume. For those who do, keep it up. Your heart will thank you!

Image from iStock/Barna Tanko.  

Brian Bender

Brian Bender, PhD, earned his doctorate in bioengineering from UCLA. He cofounded Intake, whose mission is to make proper nutrition the first priority in global health. Intake develops innovative products and services designed to bring clarity and education to help you meet your nutritional needs and dietary goals.

Leave a Reply