Before analyzing whether processed food are good or bad, frankly speaking, they have become an indispensable part of our lives. Processed foods are quick to be used and are available in our nearest grocery store for a busy daily schedule. While using, we may not think twice whether they are good or bad as they are available in 'ready to use' packaging. I, too have been using and perhaps, continue to use them for my family's consumption. But being a health professional, there is a constant dispute on my mind about the impact of these food products on health.
Simply, by processed food, we mean those foods available in packets, cans and bags. There may be some concrete definition of processed food but as common men, we know these foods are processed by using certain methods to remain edible, safe, palatable and preserve for a longer time. In the process of transforming them from a normal state to a processed form, different techniques like chemical treatment, freezing, drying and sterilization may be used. Therefore, the question which props into my mind is whether all these methods and chemicals are safe and healthy? We know, there are strict rules and regulations approved by each government of almost all countries which need to be strictly adhered by the food processing industry to which they belong. So the physical and chemical techniques used like freezing, drying, sugaring, salting or vacuum packaging are all safe for human consumption. The actual health hazard of these products on human consumption is quite controversial. The best way to deal with this issue is to be aware of the facts that can have an impact on our health.
To start with, is the processed milk which we daily use. Processed milk usually undergoes pasteurization and homogenization. Pasteurization causes damage to naturally found vitamins, enzymes (phospatase), protein (casein) and friendly bacteria present in milk. Even homogenization can lead to alteration of natural fat and cholesterol found in milk causing free radical reaction (weakens body's defence mechanism). Processed foods contain ingredients like salt (NaCl), sugar, and certain chemicals which are added for flavour and preservatives. High salt food items are mostly cheese, spreads, cereals, biscuits, chips, processed meats and canned fishes. An excess salt consumption can have direct impact on our blood pressure as salt holds excess water in body. Therefore, the stress effect on arteries, heart, and kidneys may lead to heart attack, stroke or kidney diseases. Having excess of sugar coated food items like breakfast cereals, readymade mix of cake, ice cream, chocolates and sweets can add up to increase our daily consumption of glucose leading to weight gain issues. Even artificial sweetening agents have been found to cause allergies, hyperactivity, behaviour problems and cancers. Certain ingredient like sodium nitrite is added to processed meat, bacon and veggies to give the extra flavour and colour. As such, nitrite is not harmful to health. But excess consumption can lead to headache, asthma or nausea and can be cancerous. Again, certain snack items like crackers, chips, cookies, butter and margarine may contain trans-fats. Trans fatty acids can be associated with the risk of heart disease as they elevate the level of LDL (low density lipoprotein) in body. They are also associated with incidence of breast cancer. Sometimes, processing of food can lead to alteration of natural colour of food. When the natural colour of the food item is lost indicate that there is loss of natural nutrients. So, synthetic colours are added to enhance the appearance of these food items. These food items are mainly dairy and confectioneries. Many people are allergic to these colours and can lead to skin rashes, urticaria or asthma. Usually, food preservatives used by food industry are safe and have certain permitted quantity for use in each processed food item. Preservatives commonly used are sulphites and butylated hydoxytoluene (BTH). But the problem arises when we have excess of processed food in our daily routine diet, the level of consumption of preservatives also exceed. These chemicals too, have found to have harmful effect like damaging to blood vessels in body. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is another chemical which has been quite controversial. MSG has been frequently use in processed meat, veggies, soups and packaged noodles. Though, authorities like FDA have clarified it to be safe for use in food items. But reported cases of headache, palpitation, chest pain and sweating are linked to MSG use.
Though it's a fact that we cannot do away with processed food in our day to day diet but the healthiest food sources are the naturally found whole food. Whole grains, cereals, farm fresh veggies, fruits are best sources of vitamins and minerals. Organic food items like extra virgin olive oil, milk and dairy products from pasture fed cattle and fresh fruits and veggies are ultimate sources. In an urban scenario, though availability of such food items can be at times limited. But we need to strike a balance in our daily diet with natural food and processed food. As much as our preference is for natural, unrefined food, the healthier we can live.
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A health professional who keeps writing on health related issues.