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What are “Processed Foods”? ‌ ‌

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that any natural raw material which has undergone any type of physical modification, chemical changes, or is mixed with other substances can be termed ‘processed’.

Physical changes — such as heating, freezing, milling, cutting, grinding, canning, dehydrating, packaging, and/or pasteurizing.

Chemical changes — such as the addition of chemicals like preservatives, nutrients, colors, and/or flavors.

Or the addition of substances approved for use with food — such as salt, sugar, and fats.

Well, technically “processed foods” is an umbrella term which encompasses any deliberate change in the food items before they are made available to consumers. It means that everything available on the aisles of a grocery store is one way or another processed.

However, not all processed foods are bad, e.g. milk is pasteurized to eliminate any harmful bacteria. This makes it very important to know about the types of processed foods and how they are harmful.[1]

What are the Types of Processed Foods?

In 2009, a system called NOVA classification system was developed to classify processed foods into four classes. NOVA system is recognized worldwide. Four classes are as follows:

  • Unprocessed/Minimally processed — Unprocessed foods include natural parts of plants/animals available for consumption. Similarly, minimally processed foods are those who have undergone basic changes such as freezing, drying or pasteurizing, etc. This type of modification doesn’t damage or lower the nutritional content of the food items. For example fruits, vegetables, meat, milk, nuts, and more.
  •  Processed culinary ingredients — Oils from plants, seeds, nuts, and flour from whole grains are examples of processed culinary ingredients. These are used to make other processed foods.
  •  Processed foods — Adding salt, sugar, or fats to the above-mentioned categories usually yield processed foods. Processed foods are readily available to eat and contain at least 2-3 ingredients. For example canned fruits, vegetables, fish and more.
  •  Ultra-processed — These food items go beyond the mere addition of salt and sugar. Additives like preservatives, flavoring agents, and coloring agents are added to make them more palatable, stable, and ready to eat. The addition of the above-mentioned chemical compounds and multiple processing steps make them unhealthy for your body.

Usually, they are poor sources of fiber and their nutritional content is also altered to some content. For example cold drinks, fast foods, crackers, chips and more. Ultra-processed foods are linked with obesity, diabetes, and other chronic conditions such as cancer.[2]

What‌ ‌makes‌ ‌processed‌ ‌food‌ ‌harmful for your health?

Here’s what makes processed food unhealthy for consumption.

  1. Addition of unhealthy fats, sugars, and salt.
  2. Ultra-processed foods are usually loaded with saturated fats, trans fat, or large amounts of cholesterol. Over-consumption of these foods can increase the level of bad cholesterol or low-density lipoproteins (LDL) in your body. This might lead to diabetes, heart problems, obesity, and cancer. It is better to look for fats from sources such as vegetable oils, fish oils and nut oils on the label.

    Similarly, artificial sweeteners or high amounts of added sugars can also make processed foods extremely unhealthy for you. Excessive sugar consumption increases your insulin levels and chronically high insulin levels can lead to diabetes, obesity, and ultimately certain types of cancers.

    People who consume large amounts of salt on a daily basis are at a higher risk of developing heart diseases, high blood pressure, and kidney problems.[3]

  3. Addition of preservatives, food colors, stabilizers, and more.
  4. Agents like ascorbic acid, bisphenols, sodium benzoate, and monoglycerides, etc. are added to processed foods for multiple purposes. These agents might weaken your immune system and nervous system, cause accumulation of body fats, heart diseases, and can also increase the risk of cancer.[4],[5]

  5. Certain physical changes can also make them less healthy.
  6. Physical modifications like heating or hot pressing (for oils) can make raw materials lose their original nutritional value. Similarly, vegetables/fruits when peeled and canned can lose certain amounts of phytochemicals and fibers. Such physical changes make them less healthy for consumption.

    Processed foods can be damaging for your health in multiple ways. We can start off with how they make our immune system weak, which can lead to chronic conditions like cancer.


Processed foods can weaken your immune system!

Processing foods can make them lose their original nutritional content. Consumption of such foods might fulfill your appetite but they can’t provide your body with necessary nutrition. Consuming them over a long period of time causes nutritional deficiencies in your body which can make your immune system weaker. As a result, you become more prone to diseases like cancer, heart problems, obesity, and more.

Such food items can lead to increased fat deposits and obesity. Obese people have lower levels of white blood cells. These cells are responsible for fighting off infections and the prevention of cancer. To top off, high fat levels can cause chronic inflammation leading to a compromised immune system.

Overconsumption of processed foods can lead to cancer!

Approximately  30-40% of cancer cases have been associated with unhealthy diet and nutrition. Processed foods have high amounts of added saturated fats, sugars, and salt. As discussed earlier, diets loaded with fats and sugars can lead to obesity, and obesity often co-occurs with cancer.

Furthermore, they also lack dietary fiber. High fatty content and low fiber content in food are often associated with increased risk of cancer at multiple sites like gut, breasts, colon, and rectum.[8]

Additives in processed foods such as preservatives, stabilizers, and coloring agents when consumed in large quantities are also associated with an increased risk of cancer.

The bottom line

Processed foods containing high amounts of added unhealthy fats, salt, sugar, and other additives can make your immune system weak. Weaker immune system means you have a lesser ability to fight off diseases and infections. Consumption of processed food items is also strongly associated with an increased risk of cancer. Therefore, it’s time we read our food labels carefully and incorporate more of vegetables, fruits, and organic food to our diet.

https://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/publications/trs916/en/ https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/processed-foods/



Martínez Steele, E., Popkin, B.M., Swinburn, B. et al. The share of ultra-processed foods and the overall nutritional quality of diets in the US: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. Popul Health Metrics 15, 6 (2017) doi:10.1186/s12963-017-0119-3

Myles, I. A. (2014). Fast food fever: reviewing the impacts of the Western diet on immunity. Nutrition Journal, 13(1), 61.



Bouvard, V., Loomis, D., Guyton, K. Z., Grosse, Y., El Ghissassi, F., Benbrahim-Tallaa, L., … & Straif, K. (2015). Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. Lancet Oncology, 16(16), 1599.

Bovell-Benjamin, A., Dawkins, N., Pace, R., & Shikany, J. M. (2010). Dietary consumption practices and cancer risk in African Americans in the rural South. Journal of health care for the poor and underserved, 21(3 Suppl), 57.

Holmes, M. D., Dalal, S., Sewram, V., Diamond, M. B., Adebamowo, S. N., Ajayi, I. O., … & Volmink, J. (2018). Consumption of processed food dietary patterns in four African populations. Public health nutrition, 21(8), 1529-1537.

Phillips, A. A., Jacobson, J. S., Magai, C., Consedine, N., Horowicz-Mehler, N. C., & Neugut, A. I. (2007). Cancer incidence and mortality in the Caribbean. Cancer Investigation, 25(6), 476-483.

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