Topic summary contributed by volunteer(s): Randy

The typical American diet is high in processed foods. Regularly eating a significant amount of processed foods may be detrimental to our health. In order to sell processed food, industries may fund research that ultimately can misinform the public. Processing can remove nutrients from grains and even tea. Processing may remove fiber, leaving relatively empty calories with low nutrient value. Processed food intake also seems linked to higher blood pressure. A much better choice is to eat unrefined plant foods (especially a varied plant-based diet).

Processed foods may be harmful to one’s health, including carrot juice, coconut milk, coconut oil, mangosteen juice, white bread, corn syrup, sugar, and sodas. Use of the artificial sweetener aspartame has been linked to neurological and behavioral disturbances in sensitive individuals. However, two sweeteners do have significant antioxidant content.

Some processed foods have health benefits, including peanut butter, blueberry jam, homemade cranberry “juice,” apple juice, grape juice, soy products (but not tofu from Indonesia processed with formaldehyde), popcorn (but not with butter flavor), and cocoa (but not chocolate). Gum Arabic can be considered harmless.

Processed foods often contain additives, preservatives, and other chemical ingredients. Avoiding processed food additives like polysorbate 80 may help reduce risk for Crohn’s disease. The food coloring, Red dye #3, often added to processed foods, may be linked to increased thyroid cancer risk (see also here). Artificial food dyes overall in processed foods may increase inattentiveness, impulsivity, and hyperactivity among young children (see also here). Sticking largely with whole, plant-based foods is a good way to avoid aluminum compounds that may be added to processed foods. Processed cheeses often contain such additives. For those experiencing gluten sensitivity symptoms, avoiding processed foods may help. Research has found that the intake of processed, fried, and stir-fried meat is linked to increased breast tissue DNA mutations. Nitrites used in processed meats are considered carcinogenic. An NIH-AARP study found nitrites associated with increased kidney cancer risk.

In November 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans to eliminate trans fats, linked to heart disease risk, from processed foods. When preparing meals at home, minimizing use of commercially processed foods is likely helpful. Kaiser Permanente, the largest managed care organization in the U.S., published a nutritional update for their physicians suggesting that healthy eating may be best achieved with a whole, plant-based diet that discourages animal foods as well as all refined and processed foods.

For substantiation of any statements of fact from the peer-reviewed medical literature, please see the associated videos below.

Image Credit: Kevin Krejci / Flickr. This image has been modified.

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