So, what exactly is processed food? We sometimes tend to think it’s something that comes neatly and fashionably packaged, and is usually full of strange preservatives, colorings, and flavoring enhancements…that it’s a long way from being natural or whole. But it’s not just the convenience food, or stuff we relate to snacking on, it’s also everyday things such as bread, cheese and milk. Processed foods get a bad rap usually because of all the strange additives we see in some of them, but sometimes it’s just the extra salt, sugar, or fats that might not be the best for our health. Should we really try and stick to whole foods, or are we ok with some processed treats? That’s what we’ll find out today, in this episode of the Infographics Show, Will Processed Food Really Kill You in the long Run?
We will draw a line and say just because something comes packaged, maybe that lettuce you bought that has been washed and wrapped in plastic, may not strictly count as processed food. We’ll be concentrating on processed foods that have been altered in some way to make them last longer or taste better. We’ll start with foods that are perhaps the furthest distance from being whole.
So, what about pop tarts, or chips, or even hot dogs? Let’s have a look at those.
Pop tarts come in all different flavors, but essentially, they are all quite similar in terms of nutritional value, or lack thereof. They are quite calorific according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with each tart containing around 220 calories. Eating two of them for breakfast is definitely not a low calorie meal. There’s over 25 grams of sugar in each tart, and most health experts tell us to keep our sugar intake low. The total sugar content if you eat two of them is very high; in fact, it’s higher than the recommended daily intake of 36 grams for men and 24 grams for women. There is also added salt for flavor, about 190 milligrams in each tart, and salt is something else we need to try to eat less of.
One cinnamon pop tart contains 16 mg of calcium, 1.8 mg of iron, 8 mg of magnesium, 0.61 mg of zinc and 0.04 mg of copper. As for vitamins you’ll get 0.15 mg of thiamin, 0.17 mg of riboflavin, 2 mg of niacin and 80 micrograms of folate. This is not a negative, but pop tarts require artificial coloring, and most sources we can find link these colorings with hyperactivity, allergic reactions, and even cancer. There is an ongoing debate, however, regarding these negative effects. The FDA writes that regulating color additives is an “important program.”
The FDA tells us, “Color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat. Without color additives, colas wouldn’t be brown, margarine wouldn’t be yellow, and mint ice cream wouldn’t be green.” But what are these colorings, with names such as FD&C Blue No. 1. Well, they are chemicals, made in a lab, usually derived from petroleum or even coal tar. We can’t find any evidence that says these are good for us in any way. In fact, the list of things in a pop tart is very long. But we know we can keep them for a long time, and part of this is because the corn syrup helps shelf life. But it’s also due to something called TBHQ (E319) or tert-Butylhydroquinone, which preserves the oil. In very large doses, this can cause nausea and delirium, and it is thought to be carcinogenic, although humans would likely not be subjected to such large doses. Then you’ve got citric acid as a preservative, except it’s not real citrus, rather it’s extracted from a mold called Aspergillus Niger. To hold things together, you’ve got Gelatin (E441), which comes from animal bones and skin. Lastly, for taste, they contain artificial flavors, which are often hidden formulas cooked up by flavor manufacturers.
So, the question is, is all that artificial stuff, as well as all the sugar and salt, good for you? The answer it seems, is no, not at all. And when it comes to foods served in boxes, or juices and sodas in bottles and cans, many of them do contain similar artificial ingredients. Some health experts believe it’s these kinds of super-processed foods that lead to a lot of the diseases we suffer from, especially cancer. Other experts tell us there may be a link between some processed food and cancer, but the link is unclear. It just depends which report you are reading.
We might now look at potato chips, or what the British call crisps. Entire aisles in supermarkets are filled with these snacks and the variation of flavors is seemingly endless. Ok, so we don’t need to tell you that these things are high in fat and salt. They also contain something called acrylamide, which is said to be carcinogenic. But again this is an ongoing debate..This occurs when high carb foods are cooked at high temperatures. “Although evidence from animal studies has shown that acrylamide in food could be linked to cancer, this link isn’t clear and consistent in humans,” said Emma Shields at Cancer Research UK on the topic. “It’s much harder to study the effects of acrylamide in people, but there’s no reason to think that it couldn’t damage human DNA too. “ They aren’t just fried potatoes, because they are enhanced so they can stay on the shelf and keep their flavor. They contain lots of trans fats, thought to be bad for your arteries. But what about all those strange tastes they provide? What gives you that salt and vinegar taste? According to one study we found, “The ingredient that helps give ‘salt & vinegar’ potato chips that tangy snap is the key to a new waterproof coating for protecting concrete from water damage.” The chemical was sodium acetate. This shouldn’t be a problem in low doses, however. But the biggest concern according to science is the amount of acrylamide the chips contain – a concern not related to obesity that is – but all those wonderful flavors you are eating are made from chemicals you might not want to consume.
So, now let’s talk about foods that seem close to being whole foods. What about bacon, it’s just pig right? Well, as we write this there are a slew of articles out there telling us in no uncertain terms that bacon is killing us. The BLT just wouldn’t be the same as the LT, so can we just have a bit now and again? Many processed meats have been under the gun since the WHO published a paper saying that they were indeed carcinogenic. After that, the news media was talking about these meats in the same sentence as alcohol, asbestos and tobacco. Meat is murder was Morrissey’s old slogan, but he wasn’t talking about it killing the consumer. Things got scarier when the WHO told us that just two servings of bacon a day increased the risk of getting colon cancer by 18 percent. But what was all this about?
The Guardian wrote about “Bacongeddon” in 2018, interviewing one academic that told the paper that it would be misleading for health authorities to set any safe dose for processed meat other than zero. But there was some good news, and that is that there is a good, bad and ugly side of processed meat. It’s the chemicals used to treat the meat that is bad, not really the meat itself. We are told the pinker it looks, the more it has been treated with what are called nitrates and nitrites. The short version of a long story is that companies look for cheaper solutions when curing the meat. Salting or brining, the old school way, is expensive and time consuming, so the meat is chemically treated. Hence, “nitro-meat”. It’s not only bacon, but things like cured ham or salami or any manner of processed meats. Nitrates in themselves are not bad, but according to The Guardian, “When nitrates interact with certain components in red meat (haem iron, amines and amides), they form N-nitroso compounds, which cause cancer.” This isn’t new, though, and for decades activists and politicians in the US have been trying to outlaw or at least teach people about these cured meats and the cancer they cause.
You can look for fresh meat, or non-cured meat, but that won’t usually include the popular snack the hotdog, which also contains nitrates. Talking about such meats, including hotdogs, Peter Clifton, professor of nutrition at the University of South Australia, said, “All data says processed meat is bad: more diabetes, higher mortality, more cardiovascular disease.” The other thing is that hotdogs often contain all dubious parts of the animal, not just the cuts we usually think we are eating. Not much is spared of the beast.
Some canned or frozen foods certainly do not contain all these cancer-causing chemicals, but it’s thought the food might lose some of its nutritional value. From what we can find, freezing or canning doesn’t necessarily mean a bad thing. The worst thing we could find is that many packaged foods, including canned foods, contain something called bisphenol-A or BPA in the actual packaging, and this, while still ok in small doses, may negatively affect our health. Studies are ongoing.
The gist of it is, it seems from most health experts, is that food full of unnatural colors and flavors is not the best for your health. Those foods are usually easy to spot, much because they don’t look like food at all, not in any natural way. Then again, there are plenty of studies that tell us this risk has been overblown. That’s the thing about information these days, contradictions are everywhere. It does seem we should be careful how much cured meat we eat, which covers a lot of meat products on the market.
There are many more foods we could have covered. There’s a huge white bread debate going on, and then there’s the myriad articles telling us milk is bad, then a year later it’s good again, or that cheese is bad, and then it’s not so bad. But it seems when certain chemicals get involved to produce stuff faster, give it color, or make it taste better, there might be cause for concern.
So, are there foods that you love that you know you should probably not be eating? Let us know in the comments!