What Does Processed Food Do To Your Body?

Smiling woman holds chocolate cake in hand

Many of us already know that the modern diet isn’t especially healthy. After all, people tend to rely heavily on processed foods and often pay little attention to the nutrients of anything that they are eating. But, just how significant is this practice?

Realistically, there is a growing focus on eating healthy food and watching our diets. With that in mind, are we still eating large quantities of processed foods and what implications do those approaches have? Here's another question: What does processed food do to your body?

A recent research study (Steele et al., 2016) took a look at our consumption of processed foods and what this consumption meant for energy and sugar intake.

The authors were particularly interested in added sugars, partly because there has been a large push to decrease the amount of added sugars. With modern eating practices, decreasing added sugar and decreasing the consumption of sugar is a key goal, as too much sugar has been associated with so many health issues (1,2,3,4,5). Furthermore, there is a decent amount of evidence that sugar is addictive (6,7).

For example, many people are trying to cut down the sugar in their diet or cut it out altogether. At the same time, policy makers are trying to find ways to decrease the consumption of sugar, such as through the idea of a soda tax.

So, clearly sugar is something to be concerned about, but what's the connection between processed foods and sugar. ​

The Study Itself

The emphasis of this study was on what it termed ‘ultra-processed foods’. The authors defined these foods as follows:

Steele et al., 2016

Industrial formulations which, besides salt, sugars, oils and fats, include substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations.

So, essentially the authors were defining ultra-processed foods as foods that used artificial additives to mimic the taste and properties of food that hadn’t been heavily processed. A good example would be a frozen dinner, as in most cases, a frozen dinner is heavily artificial and is very different than a dinner that you or I might prepare.

The study involved a total of 9,317 participants above one year of age and looked at their food consumption using 24-hour recalls.

The authors found that across the sample population 57.9% of energy intake came from ultra-processed foods. In contrast, just 29.6% of energy intake came from minimally processed or non-processed food. Additionally, 89.7% of energy from added sugars came from those foods.

The authors also found (not surprisingly) that increasing the intake of ultra-processed foods also increased energy intake from added sugars. This means that the more processed foods that people eat, the greater amount of added sugars they are consuming.

The most common ultra-processed foods consumed included the following (in order of energy contribution):

Man eating junk food
  • Bread
  • Sugary beverages (including soft drinks, fruit drinks and milk-based drinks)
  • Cakes, cookies and pies
  • Salty snacks
  • Frozen and shelf-stable plates (e.g. frozen dinners)
  • Breakfast cereal and pizza

Additionally, across the study, the average energy intake was 2069.5 calories – which is quite high.

Overall, those statistics say some concerning things about the food we eat and the nutritional implications of that food. Based on these results, it’s no surprise that many Americans struggle with their weight and with their health.

As the result of their data, the authors suggested that cutting down on ultra-processed foods is a key way to decrease the added sugar that we consume.

Earlier, I asked 'what does processed food to do our bodies?'. There are many answers to that question, but this research suggests that one answer is that processed food acts as a vehicle for sugar. In turn, sugar can cause all sorts of harm to our bodies.  ​

Strengths and Limitations

The most significant strength of this study was that it looked at food consumption in general and information on added sugars. In contrast, many other studies focus on products like sugar-sweetened drinks or fast food.

Because of that, the results of this study apply more widely than the results of other research. At the same time, the study also used a large and general sample population. This also makes the study results more widely applicable.

However, the study did rely on self-reported food consumption. This is often the most practical way to determine food consumption, but it also has some issues. In particular, people often cannot accurately remember what they have eaten or when they ate it.

A young woman sitting in a cafe guiltily eating a sweet treat

Additionally, there is often bias in the way that people report food consumption. In general, there is a tendency towards over-reporting healthy foods and under-reporting unhealthy foods.

Nevertheless, if this bias were present in this study, it would serve to make the conclusions of the study more significant.

As such, if anything the study underestimates the significance of processed foods on sugar intake.

One final factor to consider is that this study was conducted on an American population. As such, it’s conclusions may not apply to other countries, even ones that have many similarities.

After all, the foods and methods of manufacturing do differ from one country to the next.

What Does Processed Food Do To Your Body?

This study highlights what many of us already knew, that processed food is a key source of sugar. Likewise, it reinforces the idea that heavily processed food is bad for our health and may even contribute to disease development if we eat too much of it. After all, heavily processed food does tend to have fewer nutrients than less processed alternatives.

The outcomes of the study also suggest that we should focus on processed food in general when we try to cut down sugar.

Many people don’t do this and even policy makers have been trying to focus on key types of products, like sugary drinks. But, if you look at the results of the study, it’s clear that sugar comes from all sorts of places, including bread and frozen dinners.

For example, the site Rodale Wellness talks about 12 sources of hidden sugar - and there are many others as well. Additionally, the site Eat Naked Now highlights why having a healthy blood sugar balance is so important. 

So, to improve our health, we need to be aware that sugar can hide in a range of different places.

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When you think about added sugar, do you think about processed food or just things like soda?

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