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Bernard-Henri Louvat
CEO & Founder of Tera. I am a serial technology entrepreneur and I occasionally write articles for our blog. Drop me a line at blouvat@hellotera.com if you feel like it!

What Are the Health Risks of Processed Foods? (Part 1)

In today’s fast-paced world, processed food has become an integral part of our daily lives. From convenience snacks to pre-packaged meals, we rely on these readily available options for quick and easy sustenance. However, beneath the allure of convenience lies a concerning reality – the prevalence of additives and preservatives in processed foods.

Ultra-Processed Foods

One of the primary culprits behind our unhealthy diets is our excessive reliance on Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs). These foods undergo significant alterations from their natural state and are often laden with additives and unhealthy ingredients. Understanding the detrimental effects of UPFs and why we find ourselves addicted to them is crucial for improving our overall health.

Processed foods encompasses a wide range of products, as the degree of processing can vary significantly. For instance, frozen broccoli that is preserved at its peak freshness without any additives can still be considered a nutritious option. 

On the other hand, highly processed foods like Pop-Tarts contain ingredients such as soybean oil and refined flour, along with three types of sugar: refined white sugar, corn syrup, and high fructose corn syrup. Clearly, such choices are far from healthy. Generally, the closer a food is to its natural state, with fewer added ingredients, the better it is for us.

Manufacturers often produce ultra-processed foods with addictive qualities, prioritizing profits over health. This disregard for ethical considerations is deeply concerning. The power of advertising, combined with our taste buds’ memory of the sensations these foods provide, makes it challenging to break free from their addictive grip. Additionally, healthier food options are often more expensive, creating barriers for some consumers to make the switch.

While there is a wide array of additives used in processed foods, three major ones should be closely watched: saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium. When examining nutrition labels, it’s important to be wary of these ingredients. Ideally, added sugars and saturated fats should comprise less than 10% of our total calorie intake.

The prevalence of UPFs in our diets and their addictive qualities pose significant risks to our health. Being mindful of the ingredients we consume and making informed choices can help us break free from the allure of processed foods and prioritize our well-being. It is crucial to advocate for greater transparency in the food industry and promote access to affordable, nutritious alternatives.

Illustrative graphic showing what ultra-processed foods increase and decreases in the human body

Food Additives

Let’s delve into the topic of food additives, which are chemicals used in the manufacturing of Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs). These additives play a significant role in the production of food, but their use can have significant impacts on our health and well-being.

Food additives are substances added to food for various purposes, such as preventing spoilage, enhancing color and flavor, and improving texture. In the United States, the food industry employs a staggering number of additives, estimated to be around 14,000. However, it is important to note that some of these additives have been banned in other countries due to associated health risks. The excessive use of food additives in UPFs has been linked to obesity and chronic diseases.

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandates that all color additives be listed on product packaging, many other food additives can be grouped under generic terms like ‘flavorings’ or ‘spices,’ making it difficult for consumers to discern the specific additives present in their favorite products. This labeling loophole is similar to the one observed in consumer products, where fragrance ingredients are not required to be disclosed.

Let’s focus on artificial food dyes, which are widely used in the United States while major food companies in Europe sell naturally colored or dye-free versions of the same products. This difference in approach is due to the health risks associated with artificial food colorings.

Some artificial food colorings have been identified as potential carcinogens. Shockingly, two out of every five food products contain artificial coloring chemicals that can potentially harm our health. For example, a widely used food dye called Red 3 has been linked to cancer and is prohibited in personal care products in the U.S. However, it is still allowed in thousands of foods marketed towards children, including popcorn, hot chocolate mix, candy, snack mix, and strawberry- or cherry-flavored products.

Red 3 belongs to the FD&C synthetic colorant family, which includes other colorants like Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Blue 1, Blue 2, and Green 3. Consumption of these colorants has been associated with neurobehavioral issues in children. Despite the detrimental effects of food coloring, the FDA has been reluctant to acknowledge its negative impact on health.

Let’s take a brief look at a popular example, Froot Loops, a highly colorful cereal marketed towards children and manufactured by Kellogg’s. It contains more refined white sugar than any other ingredient and artificial food colorings that have been linked to hyperactivity, food allergies, and even cancer. Additionally, Froot Loops contain potentially harmful preservatives like BHT, hydrogenated oils that contribute to heart disease, and a high likelihood of trans fats.

It is crucial for consumers to be aware of these additives, read labels carefully, and make informed choices about the foods they consume to prioritize their health and well-being. Advocating for greater transparency and stricter regulations regarding food additives can also contribute to a healthier food environment.

Dangers of food, dyes info, graphic
dangers of dye in processed foods info graph

Preservatives

Preservatives play a crucial role in extending the shelf life of food products, but their use raises concerns about the potential risks to our health. Let’s explore some preservatives that we should be wary of and understand why they pose these risks.

Sodium Nitrite and Sodium Nitrate are commonly used preservatives in processed meats like salami, hot dogs, and bacon. However, when added to these meats, they form compounds in our bodies that are associated with the development of cancer. Consuming processed meats high in nitrates and nitrites has been linked to an increased risk of digestive tract cancers, including those affecting the stomach and colon. It’s worth noting that nitrates and nitrites naturally present in vegetables do not pose the same harm.

BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are preservatives used to prevent foods from becoming rancid and prolong their shelf life. However, both have been classified as potentially carcinogenic to humans. In fact, the state of California lists them as known carcinogens. These preservatives can also interfere with hormone regulation and can be found in various products such as cereals, sausages, chips, and cosmetics.

Potassium Bromate, a preservative used to enhance the volume of bread and flour, has been banned in several countries due to its carcinogenic properties in animals. It also acts as an endocrine disruptor. Commercial breads like Wonder Bread and Home Pride often contain this preservative, so it’s important to check the ingredients before purchasing.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), derived from corn starch, is a preservative and highly refined sweetener. Its consumption has been linked to a range of health issues including weight gain, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. HFCS can be found in many processed foods and beverages, including soda, breads, cereals, and condiments. Its prevalence in our diets has coincided with the alarming rise in obesity rates and diabetes incidence.

Trans fats, also known as hydrogenated vegetable oils, contribute to heart disease, obesity, strokes, and metabolic syndromes. These fats raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and lower HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Food containing trans fats include deep-fried foods, margarine, cookies, and fast food. Although the FDA banned the addition of partially hydrogenated oils to foods in 2020, trace amounts of trans fats may still be present due to labeling regulations.

The dangers of high fructose corn syrup info graphic. Processed foods

What Can We Do?

As we conclude our exploration of processed food, additives, and preservatives, it becomes evident that the convenience and appeal of these products come at a cost. The hidden hazards associated with these substances raise concerns about their impact on our health and well-being.

However, armed with knowledge, we can make more informed choices about the foods we consume. By prioritizing whole, unprocessed foods and being mindful of the ingredients and nutrition labels, we can reduce our exposure to harmful additives and preservatives. Additionally, supporting local farmers and opting for organic and natural alternatives can further contribute to a healthier and more sustainable diet.

Ultimately, it is crucial to strike a balance between convenience and nutrition. By embracing whole foods and minimizing our reliance on processed options, we can take a proactive approach toward protecting our health and promoting a better future for ourselves and our families. Let us strive for a food culture that prioritizes quality, transparency, and the well-being of all.

The Tera App

The Tera app is your ultimate companion in the journey to avoid ultra-processed foods, additives, and preservatives. Through its comprehensive database and ingredient analysis, Tera provides detailed information about the composition of food products, allowing you to identify and steer clear of harmful additives and preservatives commonly found in processed foods. With a simple scan or search, the app reveals the hidden ingredients and potential health risks associated with specific products, empowering you to make healthier choices. 

Tera also offers personalized recommendations for nutritious alternatives, helping you discover wholesome options that are free from excessive processing and undesirable additives. With Tera, you can confidently navigate the aisles of the grocery store, avoiding the pitfalls of ultra-processed foods and prioritizing your well-being!

App Screenshots

Tera app, Dan's killer bread, product page images

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