When discussing healthy diets, the advice is often to stay away from processed foods. Actually, this is almost impossible since most foods undergo some form of processing to ensure food safety of perishable foods. I think that a better message would be that we should attempt to avoid ultra-processed foods, many of which have high levels of sodium, fat or sugar. At a glance, these foods are easily identified by their extremely long ingredient lists. A recent report from the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) found that more than 60% of the food purchased annually in the U.S. is highly processed, This trend will continue as long as consumers buy these boxed and bagged products that fill our landfills and detract from environmental responsibility.
The highly processed foods are those found in the center aisles of the supermarket and include frozen and ready-made meals, cereals, snacks, cheese spreads, and other packaged items. These foods are commonly filled with additives or preservatives to improve flavor, texture and extend shelf life.
What effects can these foods have on our health and why?
Obesity, Metabolic Syndrome, Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disea
Obesity has been associated with our excessive intake of sugar and linked to a plethora of adverse health issues that include metabolic syndrome, diabetes type 2, and cardiovascular disease. If you look at the ingredient lists, you may find on some products sugar listed by many names. Sugar means sucrose but is contained in brown sugar, granulated, raw or powdered sugars. However, your sugar vocabulary should include high fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, dextrose, glucose, maltose, lactose and fructose. There is also corn syrup, honey, molasses, malt syrup, sugar syrup, and fruit juice concentrate. Some research suggests that sugar triggers the same sense of pleasure and cravings within the brain that also triggers drug addiction.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
Inflammatory bowel disease encompasses two major diseases: ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. The blame may go to additives called emulsifiers. They are found in many processed foods like breads, peanut butter, cake mixes, salad dressings, sauces, yogurt, pudding, processed cheese, and ice cream. Emulsifiers function to keep water and oil mixed in food products that contain ingredients that would normally separate.
Emulsifiers used in processed foods function in the same way as those found in household soaps or detergents. When mice were fed diets high in common food emulsifiers, they developed diseases similar to ones already discussed (obesity and metabolic syndrome, as well as IBD. The conclusions of the authors were that bacteria in the microbiome affected the mucus protective layer that separates them from the intestinal wall, similarly to how a detergent works to remove dirt in industrial applications. It is thought by some that this process causes an inflammatory reaction that may contribute to the incidence of these diseases.
Autoimmune diseases are characterized by when the body attacks its own cells. At last count, there are about 100 of these diseases and the more common ones include; diabetes type 1, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
The intestine is lined with epithelial cells that function to serve as a protective membrane to prevent toxins, harmful bacteria, or other substances called antigens that could cross this barrier and cause an immune reaction in the body. Intestinal permeability is a term describing the control of material passing from inside the gastrointestinal tract through the cells lining the gut wall, into the rest of the body. (Wikipedia). The media refers to intestinal permeability as “leaky gut syndrome,” but is debunked by many in the medical profession, due to a lack of quality research to support it. Nevertheless, the possibility of emulsifiers and other processed food additives conceivably could damage or affect intestinal permeability leading to an autoimmune disease. Other additives that could affect this permeability in addition to emulsifiers are glucose, salt, organic solvents, and gluten and all are used in processed food products. (WebMD, Digestive disorders/leaky gut syndrome).
Colorectal cancer has been associated with processed meats like hot dogs, sausage, deli meats or any other meat product chemically treated with preservatives. This also can include red meat consumed daily. The chemicals used have been linked to have carcinogenic properties.
The link between sodium nitrites and cancer may be the culprit. Processed meats are manufactured using sodium nitrite. During the process of cooking certain meats, sodium nitrites combine with naturally present amines in the meat to form carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds.
Eating a diet of primarily whole foods rather than reliance on highly processed foods may help prevent some of the common diseases of our culture from food intolerance to cancer prevention. Processed foods may have subtle effects on our bodies that are difficult to assess or determine. Listen to your brain-gut reactions that may help you identify some of the effects that some unknown additive may have on your health. Digestive distress can be an indication that your body is sensitive to a certain ingredient and can be simply alleviated by consuming fewer ultra processed foods.