…[arguably] the most meaningful label on your food . . . is the U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA) organic seal. For a product to be certified organic, it’s
required to meet specific standards:  Organic crops cannot be grown with synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides or sewage sludge.  Organic crops
cannot be genetically engineered or irradiated.  Animals must eat only organically grown feed (without animal byproducts) and can’t be treated with
synthetic hormones or antibiotics.  Animals must have access to the outdoors,
and ruminants (hoofed animals, including cows) must have access to pasture.
 Animals cannot be cloned.”
~ “Understanding Food Labels” – foodandwaterwatch.org (July 2018)
You may have heard that processed foods can harm your health, but do you know why? Have you ever wondered just what a “processed” food is, exactly? Below are some guidelines for wading through the label and food choice quagmire. You will be well on your way to healthier living once you know which types of foods and food ingredients to avoid, and which to consume.
What is a “Processed” Food?
The strictest definition of a “processed” food is one that has been altered mechanically or chemically before consumed. Of course, not all processed food is bad. Certain forms of processing, such as cleaning, chopping/trimming/macerating (think tea bags, protein powders, and smoothies), freezing, canning, and packaging, can make food safer and more affordable and convenient (and thus more likely to be eaten). Some processing, such as fermenting and the adding of vitamins/minerals and fiber, can even enhance food nutrition value.
Unhealthy, ultra-processing refers to extensive food alteration and the addition of multiple undesirable, unnecessary ingredients. These types of alterations and additives convert healthy nutrient-dense foods to ones that are full of empty, disease-promoting calories.
Health Conditions Linked to Regular Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods
Ample scientific evidence ties poor diet to poor health and degenerative disease. Ultra-processed foods, consumed regularly over time, can cause and/or exacerbate inflammation, delayed food intolerances/allergies, weakened immunity and cancer, overweight/obesity, diabetes, digestive ailments, heart disease, and brain dysfunction (ADD/ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease). In a February 2018 study of over 100,000 participants researchers concluded that, “a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a significant increase of greater than 10% in risks of overall and breast cancer.”
Data from a 2014 study of 345 children proved that consumption of ultra-processed products played a role in raising total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. The researchers concluded, “These results are important to understanding the role of food processing and the early dietary determinants of cardiovascular disease.”
Specific Ingredients to Avoid
Guideline: If you can’t pronounce its ingredients, or don’t know what they are, don’t eat it.
While it is often impossible to avoid all processed foods, becoming familiar with this list of harmful label ingredients can improve the total nutritional value of your grocery cart.
Refined Carbohydrates (aka simple/processed carbohydrates): Refined sugars [high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), table sugar] and refined grains/starches (white flour, white rice, mainstream cakes, cookies, crackers, breakfast cereals and pasta) are the two types of refined carbohydrates.
Since tasting sweetness enhances appetite, the inclusion in foods of HFCS, high amounts of other sugars, and especially artificial sweeteners, increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome, and general mitochondrial dysfunction. One 2015 study of the impact of carbohydrate intake on the liver labeled fructose a, “weapon of mass destruction.” Researchers determined in 2014 that because artificial sweeteners alter the composition and function of intestinal microflora, their consumption can quickly induce glucose intolerance and gut dysbiosis in healthy people.
Stripped of most vitamins, minerals, and fiber, refined grains: (1) provide only “empty calories”; (2) are digested quickly; and (3) have a high glycemic index and glycemic load. They thus lead to blood sugar and insulin spikes, overeating, and increased risk for numerous diseases, including diabetes.
Harmful Fats: It is best to avoid high intake of foods containing over-processed/refined, high-omega-6 vegetable oils (soybean, cottonseed, sunflower, corn, canola, peanut), synthetic, partially-hydrogenated trans fats, and animal-sourced saturated fats. These “bad” fats promote inflammation and cellular membrane dysfunction, thus increasing the risk for atherosclerosis, increased blood triglycerides typical in diabetics, and many other diseases.
Artificial Flavors & Food Dyes: While no artificial flavors or dyes belong in food, it is particularly noteworthy that diacetyl (DA), the butter flavoring added to microwave popcorn and other foods, accelerates beta-amyloid plaque aggregation, associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease, and may cause long-term neurological toxicity.
GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms): Corn, soy, sugar beets, and canola, the main genetically-engineered crops in the United States, are widely used in processed foods. U.S. food companies are not currently required to note on labels whether their products contain GMOs, despite the existence of the same requirement in over 60 other countries. GMO research is ongoing, and the companies that create GMOs and profit from their sale continue to argue vociferously for their practical, commercial, and health values. According to the Non-GMO Project (the leading third-party verifier of non-GMO ingredients), however, “[a] growing body of evidence connects GMOs with health problems, environmental damage, and violation of farmers’ and consumers’ rights.
. . . In the absence of credible independent long-term feeding studies, the safety of GMOs is unknown.”
MSG (aka glutamic acid, glutamate, hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast extract): Sometimes hidden on labels as “natural flavor,” MSG over-stimulates and exhausts neuron receptors. It has been linked with numerous health problems, including headaches, fatigue, depression, rapid heartbeat, and general neurological dysfunction.
Synthetic Pesticides/Herbicides/Fertilizers (especially glyphosate):
Guideline: Certified organic food is always non-GMO, but non-GMO food is not necessarily organic/certified organic.
Although environmental factors can impact the purely organic quality of produce, and skeptics might argue that a governmental seal does not necessarily provide true assurance that something is organic, the green-and-white USDA Organic seal is currently the most recognized means of determining whether produce and other foods are actually organic. Food receives the USDA Organic certification only if: (1) plant ingredients are grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and (2) animal-derived ingredients come from animals that are fed only organically grown feed and are not treated with antibiotics or synthetic hormones. The Environmental Working Group provides Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists to guide consumer choices according to which fresh foods have the most and least pesticide residues, respectively.
Scientific studies have shown: (1) pesticides harm children’s brains; (2) pesticide use is linked to childhood cancers, and prostate/testicular cancers; and (3) organic foods offer significantly higher levels of antioxidants and healthy fats than conventionally grown varieties. However, though it certainly seems indisputable that one should avoid eating toxic chemicals, scientists maintain that more research is needed that: (1) addresses the long-term impact of organic food consumption on various chronic diseases; and (2) compares the impact of organic and conventional diets.
Preservatives: Sodium nitrate/nitrite, often found in deli/smoked meats (bacon, ham, hot dogs, and jerky) greatly increase cancer risk. BHA and BHT are tied to neurological, behavioral, and hormonal problems, cancer, and metabolic dysfunction. As far back as 1980, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) banned the use of these preservatives, and researchers in 1986 cited them as toxic, harmful to the blood, and potentially very detrimental to the circulatory system.
Healthy Minimally Processed Food Choices
While many popular foods undermine good health, there are plenty of wholesome, minimally processed food options that enhance health span and longevity, including: (1) the rainbow of organic, (ideally locally grown) vegetables and fruits; (2) organic eggs; (3) wild fish; (4) organic poultry; (5) organic whey/vegan protein powders; (6) brown/wild rice and quinoa; (7) non-dairy milk and cheese alternatives (some argue that these are overly processed, despite their lacking harmful ingredients); (6) beans; (7) healthy fats, including olive, flax, hemp, avocado, and coconut (controversial) oils; and (8) filtered, high-pH water, teas, and coffee/coffee alternatives. A plant-based diet that minimizes meat consumption best supports long-term wellness.
Removing processed foods from your diet and replacing them with whole food options, can be affordable, easy, and even fun. Taking these simple steps can ease the transition to a healthier diet: (1) identify your favorite foods that are processed; (2) make a list of minimally processed foods that you enjoy; (3) search online for replacement ideas (for example, exchange Doritos for organic walnuts, almonds and cranberries as a mid-day snack) and easy, fast recipes that incorporate the healthier foods you like; (4) one day, or even one week at a time, swap one processed food in your diet for one minimally processed option. Before you know it, you’ll be eating mostly whole foods and feeling and looking healthier, thinner, and younger!
The statements in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, are for educational purposes only, and are not intended to take the place of a physician’s advice.
Submitted by Erika Dworkin, Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition®, Nutrition Consultant and Owner of the Manchester Parkade Health Shoppe (860.646.8178), 378 Middle Turnpike West, Manchester, CT, www.cthealthshop.com, nutrition specialists trusted since 1956. Erika is available to speak to groups.
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