About 90% of the American household food budget is spent on buying processed foods. Processed foods have attractive packaging; they are fast and convenient to use and have a much longer shelf-life than fresh foods. For those who don’t cook or are not good at cooking, it’s very tempting to head down the supermarket aisles and pick up some processed foods as they offer a convenient solution to your modern day time-crunched lifestyle.
What Are Processed Foods and What’s In It?
Processed foods usually come in bags, cans, jars, or boxes. They are fresh foods that have gone through processing methods such as canning, freezing, refrigeration, dehydration, or aseptic processing. Unlike fresh foods which are usually single ingredient items, processed foods often contain a long list of ingredients on the label, many of which you can’t even pronounce.
Most processed foods are laden with sweeteners, salt, artificial flavors, factory-created fats, food coloring, chemicals that alter texture, and preservatives. The reason why so much “junk” has to be added to processed foods is because the processing methods strip the nutrients away and change the color and texture of the foods. As a result, manufacturers need to add the chemicals to enhance the looks and taste of the foods and to prolong their shelf-life.
How Bad Are Processed Foods?
Fresh foods contain many nutrients, such as soluble fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and natural fats, designed by nature to protect your body. Not only do processed foods lack these important nutrients, they also contain many unsavory ingredients that have been proven to harm your health. Studies have concluded that regular consumption of processed foods can lead to a myriad of health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Therefore, if you don’t cook or are crunched for time and have to rely on processed foods for your sustenance, the least you can do is to choose processed foods that don’t contain the following harmful ingredients:
- Trans fats are the worst of all fats because they boost your levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and decrease your “good” HDL cholesterol. That’s double trouble for your heart and arteries.
- Trans fats are factory-created fats. The process of hydrogenation alters the chemical structure of liquid vegetable oils, such as those made from corn, soybean, safflower, or sunflower. Manufacturers prefer to use trans fats because they have a higher melting point (which makes them attractive for baking) and a longer shelf-life. Trans fats can be found in baked goods, crackers, snack foods, microwave popcorn, stick margarine, French fries and many other processed foods. Restaurant food, especially fast food, is often laden with trans fats.
- Check the ingredient list for words like “partially hydrogenated oil” or “hydrogenated oil”. Even if the packaging says “0 gram trans fat”, it might still contain less than 0.5 gram of trans fat. When you are eating several servings a day, it can add up.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Research has proven that high fructose corn syrup upsets the human metabolism, raising the risk for diabetes and heart disease. Due to its chemical structure, it encourages overeating and leads to obesity. In addition, high consumption of fructose zaps the body’s reserves of chromium, a mineral important for maintaining healthy levels of cholesterol, insulin, and blood sugar.
- Manufactures opt to use high fructose corn syrup because it is cheaper, sweeter, mixes more easily with other ingredients, and has a longer shelf-life. It gives baked goods an inviting brown color and soft texture. Today, Americans consume nearly 63 pounds of it per person per year in drinks and sweets, as well as in many other processed foods.
- Check the ingredient list for “high fructose corn syrup”, “corn syrup”, “corn syrup solids”, or “corn sweetener”.
Sodium Nitrate (Sodium Nitrite)
- Sodium nitrate (sodium nitrite) is used as a preservative and a coloring and flavoring agent in bacon, ham, hot dogs, luncheon meats, sausages, corned beef, smoked fish, and other processed meats. These additives can lead to the formation of cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines. Studies have found a link between consuming nitrates and cancer in humans.
- Processed foods often contain very high levels of sodium. Salt (sodium chloride) helps prevent spoiling by drawing moisture out of food, so bacteria can’t grow. Salt also kills existing bacteria that might cause spoiling. Salt makes soups more savory, reduces dryness in crackers and pretzels, and increases sweetness in cakes and cookies. Salt also helps disguise metallic or chemical aftertastes in products such as soft drinks.
- The Recommended Daily Allowance for sodium is no more than 2,400 mg per day, about one teaspoon of salt. People with high blood pressure should limit their daily intake to less than 1,500 mg. Americans, on average, take in between 4,000-5,000 mg every day, mostly from processed foods.
- When you eat more salt than your body needs, your body retains fluid simply to dilute the extra sodium in your bloodstream, this raises blood volume, forcing your heart to work harder. At the same time, it makes your veins and arteries constrict. The combination results in an increase in blood pressure.
- Therefore, read product labels for sodium content. Try to opt for low-sodium or sodium-free products.
Other Harmful Food Additives
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) – MSG is commonly used as a flavor enhancer in soups, salad dressings, chips, frozen entrees, and restaurant food. It can cause headaches, nausea, and allergic reactions in some people.
Aspartame – A sweetener known by the brand names NutraSweet and Equal is found in diet foods such as low-calorie desserts, gelatins, drink mixes, and soft drinks. Research shows that regular consumption may cause endocrine (hormone) and neurological problems. Some adverse reactions include headaches/migraines, abdominal pain, fatigue, dizziness, vision hallucinations and anxiety attacks.
Acesulfame-K – An artificial sweetener found in baked goods, chewing gum, gelatins, and some low-calorie desserts has shown to cause tumors in animal studies. It is also found to stimulate insulin production and can potentially aggravate hypoglycemia (low blood sugar attacks).
Food Colorings (Blue 1, 2; Red 3; Green 3; Yellow 6) – These five food colorings have been linked to various forms of cancer in animal testing.
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (butylated hydrozyttoluene), Propyl Gallate, and Potassium Bromate – These are all preservatives added to processed foods and are potentially cancer-causing reactive compounds.
White sugar – Last but not least, watch out for sugar-loaded foods, such as baked goods, cereals, sauces, and many other processed foods. If the label says “evaporated cane juice”, “cane sugar”, “beet sugar”, “sucrose”, “dextrose”, or “maltodextrin”, it is still sugar. Try to choose foods with less than 5 grams of sugar per serving.
Tips To Preparing Home-Cooked Meals
- Preparing your own food not only saves money, you also control the ingredients that go into it. It is significantly more economical and nutritionally far superior to prepare your own meals. You just need some organization and planning ahead.
- For most people, there is usually at least one day out of the week that isn’t as chaotic. Use that day for planning, shopping, preparing, and even cooking. Think about the coming work week and how much time you have every day to make a meal, for example, an hour on Monday, 15 minutes on Tuesday, etc.
- Plan your meals ahead of time and make a shopping list. It is much more time efficient if you go grocery shopping once a week.
- Don’t hesitate to begin preparing your meals ahead of time. Cook in batches, enough for two or more meals. You can always freeze them for use on days when you are in a rush. Better still, defrost them in the fridge the night before. This will cut down heating time.
- Chop up vegetables and store them in a zip-log bag. They only require a few minutes to cook. This way you can ensure that you have some fresh vegetables at every meal. Frozen vegetables, which are usually frozen at the peak of ripeness, retain most nutrients and are great substitues for the fresh ones. Stock up a variety of frozen vegetables in your freezer.
- Another good option is to invest in a crock pot or slow cooker. You can quickly throw together a meal in the morning (or the night before) and dinner will be ready when you get home in the evening.
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