Processed Foods and Their Effects on Health

Zoomi Singh

October 13, 2022

Recent years have been so actively engaging that people hardly have time to take proper care of themselves. In this busyness, it is apparent to resort to processed food since they’re readily accessible and highly palatable. As a result, recent studies show that India’s per-capita processed food purchase rate has shot up. Also, the condition is the same globally. 

Processed foods are the alteration of agricultural raw products by complex chemical or industrial mechanical techniques into foods that one can consume conveniently. It changes the nutritional profile and increases the shelf-life in most cases. However, the undesirable and unacceptable amount of empty calories, sugar, saturated fat, and sodium it contains is what makes it unhealthy. From the beginning of the production of processed foods, there were several concerns about the method of their modification from their natural state, conjointly blamed for harmful sodium, fat, and sugar levels. However, not all processed foods are unhealthy for health. Some basic food processing is necessary to secure the safety of perishable substances, like fresh meat, dairy, fruits, and vegetables, that one can consume exceeding the harvest season or beyond the natural expiry date. However, the concern lies with the products that make our health vulnerable to diseases. 

Highly-processed foods are typically high in empty calories. Moreover, analysis suggests consuming a lot of these foods has been connected to an enhanced risk of a wide variety of health issues and lifestyle-related diseases like obesity, high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, etc.

Examples of Processed Foods

They are the most common products you find in grocery stores:

  • Instant Noodles
  • Chips
  • Bottled Juices, Soda
  • Canned Goods
  • Chocolates, candies, and other packaged sweets
  • Packaged Meat
  • Processed Dairy
  • Microwavable meals
  • Cakes and biscuits
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Bread

Ultra-processed foods are generally chemically treated with additives or preservatives to enhance their style and texture or increase shelf-life. A glance at the label is easy to identify any processed food. Usually, all the foods packaged with emulsifiers, raising agents, artificial colours, flavour enhancers, raising agents, hydrogenated oils, etc., make up processed foods.

The Overuse of Processed Foods Creates Following Health Issues


The excessive consumption of processed foods or ultra-processed foods, junk foods, and ready-to-cook meals leads to obesity. The excessive amount of calories from the unhealthy fat present in them surpasses the total number of calories burnt, leading to fat accumulation in various body parts. It promotes weight gain and, if not controlled, causes obesity. Not only obesity but the buildup of fat in multiple parts of the body also encourages cardiovascular diseases, strokes, atherosclerosis, PCOS, diabetes, and many more. 

Many studies and evidence prove the link between obesity and the consumption of processed food. Foods rich in sodium, synthetic products, additives, sugar, and refined products are the most popular contributors to processed foods and prominent creators of obesity. Furthermore, the significant increase in fast foods or processed meals results in adiposity. In addition, of course, inactivity and improper lifestyle add to the weight issues. 

Processed foods have an undesirable amount of sodium present in them. Studies demonstrate the link between a high salt intake with an elevated risk of obesity. These highly processed sweets and sugary beverages come with added sugar and salt; however, the word “sugar” doesn’t appear as it is on the label. Other sweeteners list the kinds of sugar added to processed foods: corn syrup, fructose, glucose, sucrose, disaccharide, malt, honey, or nectar are the most common names. 

Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a collection of several conditions that occur together. Also, the main components include high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, hypercholesterolemia, and strokes. Metabolic syndrome is often known as syndrome X or insulin-resistance syndrome. The exact causes are still incompletely understood; however, it can also be a function of genetics, and surveys suggest its linkage with the excessive consumption of processed/junk/unhealthy foods. 

As per data, the prevalence of this syndrome globally varies from 20 to 25% in adults. However, it can shoot up to almost 80% of patients with type 2 diabetes. 

Metabolic syndrome occurs when any of the following factors are present:

  • Low HDL (healthy) cholesterol levels 
  • High fasting blood sugar 
  • Large waist circumference.

Healthy eating and exercise or physical activity play a significant role in avoiding or overcoming the concerns related to metabolic syndrome. Positive modifications in the diet and lifestyle and weight management are a few best strategies for this syndrome. 

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Inflammatory bowel disease or IBD is a condition that involves inflammation in the digestive tract and makes it swollen. The exact etiological causes are unknown; however, there are linkages between the disease, immune system and genes. The common symptoms are blood in stools, fatigue, unwanted weight loss, and sudden fever. 

Studies show processed foods can also play a role in developing inflammatory bowel disease, also referred to as Crohn’s disease or, technically, ulcerative colitis. Here, emulsifiers play a significant role in promoting the risk. They’re accustomed to extending shelf life and helping to hold the form or texture of foods. Nearly every processed food product includes bread, peanut butter, cake mixes, salad dressings, sauces, curd, processed cheese, ice cream, and desserts. Surprisingly, emulsifiers utilised in processed food are similar to those found in our household soaps or detergents. IBD is treated with medications, diet changes, and often surgeries. A nutritional approach includes intake of whole grains, low-fat or non-fat dairy products, good quality protein, fruits, and veggies. 

Autoimmune Diseases

Autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s immune cells attack the healthy cells in the body. There is a vast range of autoimmune diseases, but the more common ones are type-1 diabetes, lupus, disseminated sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Vitiligo, Crohn’s disease, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Autoimmune diseases are a function of genetics and many other epigenetic processes; however, studies also link it with excessive consumption of processed foods. Furthermore, processed foods disable the intestine’s protection from bacteria, toxins, chemicals, and other non-nutritional substances, which raises the chances of developing autoimmune diseases. Other than processed foods, red meat, refined grains, alcohol, and additives also cause autoimmune disorders. 

Many autoimmune diseases stem from damage to the functioning of the tight junctions that defend the intestinal mucosa. When functioning normally, tight corners serve as barriers against bacteria, toxins, allergens, and carcinogens, protecting the immune system from them. However, injury to the tight junctions (also referred to as “leaky gut”) results in the development of autoimmune diseases.

Typical food additives weaken the tight junctions, which are:

  • Glucose (sugars)
  • Sodium (salt)
  • Fat solvents (emulsifiers)
  • Organic acids
  • Gluten
  • Microbial transglutaminase (a particular enzyme that is food macromolecule “glue”)
  • Nanometric particles.

Colorectal Cancer

It is the type of cancer that starts within the colon and leads to the rectum. Processed meats that include lunch meat, bacon, sausage, hot dogs, beef jerky, or the other meat products that go through a chemical treatment to forestall rancidity are the significant foods resulting in colorectal cancer. The consumption of red meat like beef or pork in even a tiny quantity promotes highly to the disease, a Harvard analysis suggests. The risk mostly comes from the chemicals used to preserve these meats or the cooking method, each associated with exposure to carcinogenic substances.

Studies have found a link between the intake of ultra-processed foods, refined products, and sugary beverages with colorectal cancer. Some signs and symptoms include blood in stools, unwanted weight loss, anaemia, fatigue, constipation, or stomach ache. Research has found a balanced intake of folic acid, calcium, and vitamin D in specific reduces the risk of colorectal cancer. 

Anxiety and Depression

Psychological concerns are a significant problem prevalent all around the world. Studies prove a high intake of healthy foods reduces the risks of anxiety and depression. However, canned products are high in sugar or sodium. Processed cheese, cured meats, pastries, candies, fried foods, and bottled beverages contain a very high level of salt and sugar which might cause an increased level of glucose or sodium in our bloodstream, causing diabetes or blood pressure, respectively. In addition, it increases the pressure causing the release of adrenalin into the bloodstream, thereby causing anxiety. 

In most cases, anxiety or depression is caused by either eating too much or not eating. Overeating leads to obesity or overweight, and not eating at all causes fatigue and mood swings, or you will find yourself constantly irritated. The few best ways to manage depression include a well-balanced diet; it boosts your mood and looks after overall health, and aids in managing anxiety and depression. 

How to Reduce Processed Foods from Our Diet?

Going through all the above risks and effects of consuming processed foods, you will think about removing all heavily processed foods from the diet, which will be challenging. Therefore here are some tips to get started with your healthy living. 

Eat More Homemade Meals

It is the safest and arguably the best way to replace processed foods. One can cook meals customised to their taste using fresh vegetables and ingredients. That would also help reduce the guilt of having plenty of processed foods. 

Choose Minimally Processed Meats

Choose minimally processed meat (for example, seafood, chicken breast) while avoiding heavily processed meats (like sausage, cured meats such as bacon)

Check the Label

Everyone should be aware of the importance of reading labels. If most of the ingredients have the afore-mentioned hard-to-pronounce ingredients instead of pure ingredients, then it would be safe to stay away from such foods. 

Determination and Willpower

Urges and cravings are normal but how you are responding to them matters the most. Making up a solid mind to not consume any fancy processed foods will reduce processed foods and weight loss.


The effects of processed foods on health are not unknown now. The results of a disease or combination of several diseases can pose a threat to one’s life and the coming generations. Hence, adopting a healthy lifestyle is necessary. Moreover, not all processed foods are bad. Tofu, canned beans, bread, and cereals fall under necessities and undergo processing; these processed foods do not contain high amounts of saturated or trans fat, sodium, or sugar. Food processing is necessary for some foods as it locks the nutrients just after cultivation or harvest; however, it can be fortified or enriched with nutrients. It also increases its shelf-life. Therefore, a balance between things is the most crucial factor in life. The same applies to choosing the food one consumes. Completely disregarding processed foods is nearly impossible in the contemporary world as every food product comes with some modification. 

The key is ensuring that the modification is not adulteration that potentially deteriorates our health. Being mindful of how much we eat can help us figure out a healthy, happy lifestyle. Choosing healthy packaged and processed foods is sensible to replenish your refrigerator and grocery racks. Also, consuming homemade foods using healthy and fresh ingredients is the most effective way of avoiding processed foods from the store. 

Frequently Asked Question (FAQs)

Q. What are processed foods to avoid?

A. Foods like soda, packaged fried foods, instant noodles, fast foods, white bread, processed meat, chocolates, candies, frozen foods, etc., should be avoided. Also, foods high in refined sugar, saturated fats, trans fat, and sodium should be limited. These foods are high in synthetic additives or chemicals to enhance flavour and taste are considered unhealthy processed foods. Understanding labels provided at the back of every food product’s packaging aids you in identifying the ingredients used to manufacture that particular product. Therefore it makes it easier to avoid processed stuff. 

Q. What processed foods are healthy?

A. No processed foods are entirely healthy, but there are better options like canned beans, dairy, nuts, soy products, packaged salads, canned fish, cereals, etc. Since they are not empty calories, they are thought to be safe or even considered good for health. 

Q. Are eggs processed food?

A. Eggs are not considered processed foods. They hardly go through any processing before reaching consumers. However, even if it is, it is minimally processed (for example- pasteurisation). Products made with eggs include processing. 

Q. Is Rice a processed food?

A. White rice is a processed grain. It is white because the bran, germ, and husk get removed. Therefore, it loses a lot of nutrients due to processing, yet it’s still nutritious. 

Q. Which type of food is not good for health?

A. Any food that goes through adulteration by chemicals and chemical processes to alter its appearance or texture is not good for health. Fast foods, ready-to-cook meals, processed foods, junk foods, sugary beverages, high-sodium foods, and drinks and candies are not suitable for health. It does not mean that all-natural foods are healthy, always look up information about the foods you’re about to consume.

Q. Is yoghurt a processed food?

A. Yes, yoghurt is processed food. It is cultured and packaged. Chemicals also give it a nice texture. On the other hand, flavoured yoghurt has artificial flavours and sugars. However, it is healthy since it contains a lot of beneficial bacteria and falls under the category of probiotics.  

Q. Is canned tuna healthy?

A. Canned tuna is comparatively more nutritious than other products.It is abundant in high-quality protein. . It is rich in vitamin D, B6, iodine, selenium, potassium, and iron. Tuna fish, in general, is high in nutrients. A few products need to be in cans for easy transportation and convenient access.

Q. Is peanut butter a processed food?

A. Yes, market-bought peanut butter goes through processing with different oils and other ingredients present in it. Organic peanut butter consists of grounded peanuts and naturally produced peanut oil. It has a shorter shelf-life, but it’s healthier than the common ones. Homemade peanut butter is far more nutritious than commercially available ones. 

Q. Is fast food processed food?

A. Yes, fast food is highly processed. An excessive amount of taste enhancers like Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), artificial sauces, colouring, etc., are added, making it a processed food. It is no secret that these foods contain high amounts of unhealthy fats, loaded carbs, sugar, and salt. 

Q. Are potatoes healthy?

A. Potatoes are reasonably good in fibre. They help you to lose weight by keeping you full longer. In addition, fibre prevents heart diseases by maintaining cholesterol and blood sugar levels in check. Full of antioxidants, potatoes prevent diseases and encourage good health. In addition, the vitamins help your body function properly. It is also important to note that potatoes have high starch content, promoting fat storage in the body. However, one potato daily is considered healthy if the preparation technique is correct. Boiling, steaming, and baking are acceptable but deep frying is not.

About the Author

Zoomi, holds Masters degree in Nutritional Sciences from University of Allahabad, qualified CBSE-UGC-NET in Home Science and pursuing PhD in Nutritional Sciences, University of Allahabad, Prayagraj. A Strong research professional focused in Nutritional Sciences where she have more than 8 yrs of work experience in the field of Nutrition and Research, had work experience as a Dietician at Super-specialty hospitals. Skilled in Weight Management, Hypertension, Diabetes and Micronutrient related deficiencies. Additionally, she is well-versed in biostatistics and proficient in statistical tools such as SPSS and STATA. She is endowed with strong writing abilities and has authored her own book, more than six research papers, and six book chapters. Holder of various awards like Excellent Dietician, 2019 and 2020 by Saksham Society, Jaipur, Rajasthan, Academic Excellence at National Conference by Jayoti Vidyapeeth Women’s University, Jaipur (Rajasthan), India and Research Achievement Award-2020 for Research & Innovation by ACAIRS Global Network Pvt. Ltd. Life Member of Nutrition Society of India, NIN, Hyderabad and participated and presented papers in four International and six National conferences. Zoomi believes the right habits play the most crucial role in one’s health and wellness journey. The key to fit body is a fit mind and mental state.

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