Most of us would probably agree that “processed food” is bad: in nutritional science, that’s kind of a gimme. But what is “processed food?” Technically, cutting is a “process:” if you cut up a carrot into carrot sticks, does that make it “processed food?” Cooking is definitely a “process:” if you cook a chicken breast, does that make it “processed?”
Well, no - at least, not in the way most people typically use the term. When most people say “processed food,” they’re talking about Ho-Ho’s, not carrot sticks. And when we say "processed food," everyone knows what that means. So why fuss about defining it?
For one thing, because not all choices are as clear-cut as carrot sticks vs. Ho-Ho’s. What about canned soup? Rotisserie chicken? Boxed vs. canned vs. bottled coconut milk? If you understand specifically what makes “processed food” so bad, you can make smart choices about “borderline” foods based on their actual nutritional qualities, not just guesswork.
Also, if “processed” is just a synonym for “something that feels junk food-y for vague reasons I can’t justify or explain,” then you’re easy prey for marketing tricks that make things look very wholesome and nutritious when they actually aren’t. By understanding specifically what kinds of processing are bad and why, you can look past the hype and make more informed food choices.
With all that in mind, take a look at 4 reasons why Ho-Ho's and other modern “processed foods” are actually bad for you:
1. Processed Food is Full of Soy
Soy contains phytoestrogens, or plant compounds that act like estrogen in the human body. There’s
a common trope in the vegan world that soy is nothing to worry about because to get any hormone-disrupting activity, you’d have to eat more tofu than anyone actually eats in the real world. That may be true, but most people don’t get soy only from tofu.
Processed food is full of soy, from soy protein as a filler in frozen meat to soy lecithin in almost any chocolate-containing product you buy. With tofu, at least you know you’re getting a soy product, but with hamburgers and sausages, a lot of people are eating a whole lot of soy without ever knowing it. this study looked at that exact problem and found that the amount of soy found in hamburgers from a popular restaurant was enough to have significant estrogenic activity.
The problem isn’t the quantity alone. It’s also the way that modern processing methods affect the soy proteins. For example, this article focuses on glycosilated isoflavones, one major type of plant estrogens in soy. Modern industrialized processing methods don’t separate the isoflavones from the soy protein the same way that traditional soaking and fermentation methods did, so modern soy foods have a higher ratio of isoflavones to protein. Ultimately, that makes modern soy more estrogenic per gram of protein than soy foods used to be.
Most processed foods have at least some soy in them. That’s one reason to skip them and eat either foods you cook yourself from scratch or packaged foods with ingredients you can recognize and understand.
2. Processed Food has Even More Sugar than you Probably Imagine
#2 on the list of processed food sins is sugar. Everyone knows processed food is full of sugar, so it’s so completely obvious that it wouldn’t even bear mentioning, except that it’s even worse than you probably think.
In a recent survey, ultra-processed food accounted for nearly 90% of the added sugar in the US diet (and about 57% of total calories, which is terrifying).
On average, 21% of the calories in ultra-processed foods came from added sugars. Even “savory” processed foods, like pizza, typically have at least some added sugar hidden somewhere (like in the tomato sauce).
Skipping processed food is a good shortcut to dramatically reducing the amount of sugar in your diet, which will do basically nothing but good for your health. If you're looking at a package in the store, check the ingredients for sugar (aka "cane juice" aka "evaporated cane juice" aka "organic sugar cane juice") and check the Nutrition Facts to see how many grams of added sugar per serving.
3. Processed Food is Full of the Bad Fats
Another reason why the foods we think of as “processed” are so unhealthy is that they’re high in the bad kinds of fat. Fat per se isn’t a problem - lots of super nutritious food is high in fat (egg yolks, avocados, and olive oil come to mind). But when you start out with super cheap, easily oxidized vegetable oil full of Omega-6 fats, and then subject it to very harsh heat processing, it’s easy to damage the fatty acids, which causes inflammation on your end when you eat them (read more about this here).
Even worse, processed food is the only place in the world where you’ll encounter partially hydrogenated oils, the source of most trans fats in the American diet. Some kinds of trans fats are naturally found in dairy foods, but partially hydrogenated oils don’t exist in nature. They took off in 1911 with the invention of Crisco: they quickly became common in processed foods because they have a very long shelf life and they’re good for deep-frying.
What's so bad about trans fat? If some foods are heart-healthy, then trans fats are heart-deadly. Trans fats are so bad for your heart that the CDC estimates we could save 7,000 people from dying of heart attacks every year, just by taking trans fats out of food. The FDA is (finally!) phasing them out, but there’s a three-year grace period for companies to adjust and a lot of them are still using trans fats in the meantime.
In short: not all fat is good fat! Processed food is often slammed for being “high in fat,” but a more accurate criticism would be “high in industrially damaged fat.” It's much healthier to skip the omega-6 and the trans fats and focus on healthy animal and plant fats like dairy fat, olive oil, and coconut oil. You can buy products made with those fats, but you'll probably need to check the ingredients to make sure.
4. Processed Food is Specifically Designed to be More-ish
Everything about hyper-processed food is designed to get you to eat more of it.
- At the cash register, the biggest portion is typically the best deal, so it makes financial sense to buy a bigger serving. In theory, you could save some for later, but research shows that the bigger the portion in front of you, the more you’ll probably eat.
- Once you unwrap it and dig in, a lot of processed food is very soft and easy to chew (think of an apple compared to applesauce or apple juice). There’s actually been a study on this, and people do tend to consume more overall when the texture of their food is softer.
- The proportion of fat, sugar, and salt in processed food is specifically calibrated to overwhelm the natural mechanisms that your brain uses to regulate hunger and fullness. (This is a really complex topic - read more here).
Unsurprisingly, people tend to overeat when their diet consists mostly of processed food, because that's the whole point of processed food: getting you to eat as much as possible. Food companies are worried about their bottom line, not your health.
Sure, in theory, you could exert superhuman willpower and eat one serving of Oreos at a time, but you know what’s easier? Just not buying Oreos in the first place! In terms of deciding on borderline foods, this is a little trickier because it depends a lot on individual psychology, but most people can figure out which foods are too "more-ish" for them and avoid those.
"Processed" Means More Than “Bad.”
If we’re going to talk about “processed foods” as something to avoid, we should have some of why that “processing” is unhealthful - specifically what about it is harmful, and specifically why? So in the interest of making well-informed food choices, the foods that you probably think of as “processed foods” are bad for you because (among other things)...
- They’re full of soy.
- They’re full of sugar.
- They’re full of the bad fat.
- They’re designed for overeating.
If you're trying to evaluate what to eat and what to skip, looking at those four criteria should be a useful guide to what counts as "processed food" in the negative sense. Some foods in packages can pass that test, while others definitely fail.