Dangers of processed foods

The Dangers of Processed Foods On Our Health


There are a variety of “processed” foods on the market. When the term “processed” food is used it refers to ultra or tertiary processed food. A diet high in ultra or tertiary processed foods has been shown to have dangerous effects on our health.

Food processing has pros and cons, which will be discussed further. First let’s see the definition of food processing and the classifications.

By definition food processing is the transformation of agricultural products into food or one form of food into another form.

There are 3 classifications of food processing:

  1. Primary
  2. Secondary
  3. Tertiary

Primary food processing

This is the conversion of agricultural products into to something that can eventually be eaten. Examples are pasteurizing milk, butchering of animals for meat, milling grain, freezing and smoking fish/meat, shelling nuts.

Secondary food processing

This is the conversion of read to use ingredients into edible products. Examples are making wine/ beer or baking bread.

Tertiary food processing

This is the large-scale manufacturing of ready-to-eat or heat-and-serve foods. Examples are frozen dinners, microwave popcorn, canned meats like salami, luncheon meat and corned beef (“Food processing – Wikipedia”, 2022).


  • Ensuring food safety
  • Preservation of food to increase its shelf life
  • Increasing availability
  • Making it convenient
  • Preservation of nutritional quality
  • Enhancing the taste and texture of some foods
  • Increasing diversity of the food

Pasteurization of milk and freezing or drying of some foods ensure that the food is safe. Freezing of fresh fruits and vegetables increases their shelf life and preserves their nutritional quality.


  • Decrease the nutritional density of some foods
  • Chemical additives and preservatives can be harmful
  • Artificial flavouring and colouring can be harmful
  • Some processed foods are highly addictive when compared to whole foods
  • Low nutrient profile of some processed foods which require nutrient replacement which is generally inadequate when compared to the nutrient profile of whole foods

The process of canning fruits involves heating the canned produce to high temperatures which significantly reduces the amount of vitamin C. This process decreases the nutritional density of canned fruits.

There are several additives in processed foods.

Additives are divided into 4 categories

  1. Nutritional additives eg. iodine, vitamins B, C, calcium, iron and fiber
  2. Processing agents
  3. Preservative agents
  4. Sensory agents


Typical chemical agentTypical product
anticakingsodium aluminosilicatesalt
bleachingbenzoyl peroxideflour
chelatingethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA)dressings, mayonnaise, sauces, dried bananas
clarifyingbentonite, proteinsfruit juices, wines
conditioningpotassium bromateflour
emulsifyinglecithinice cream, mayonnaise, bakery products
leaveningyeast, baking powder, baking sodabakery products
moisture control (humectants)glycerolmarshmallows, soft candies, chewing gum
pH controlcitric acid, lactic acidcertain cheeses, confections, jams and jellies
stabilizing and thickeningpectin, gelatin, carrageenan, gums (arabic, guar, locust bean)dressings, frozen desserts, confections, pudding mixes, jams and jellies


     Chemical agentMechanism of action
 ascorbic acidoxygen scavenger
 butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)free radical scavenger
 butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)free radical scavenger
 citric acidenzyme inhibitor/metal chelator
 sulfitesenzyme inhibitor/oxygen scavenger
 tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ)free radical scavenger
 tocopherolsfree radical scavenger
 acetic aciddisrupts cell membrane function (bacteria, yeasts, some molds)
 benzoic aciddisrupts cell membrane function/inhibits enzymes (molds, yeasts, some bacteria)
 natamycinbinds sterol groups in fungal cell membrane (molds, yeasts)
 nisindisrupts cell membrane function (gram-positive bacteria, lactic acid-producing bacteria)
 nitrates, nitritesinhibits enzymes/disrupts cell membrane function (bacteria, primarily Clostridium botulinum)
 propionic aciddisrupts cell membrane function (molds, some bacteria)
 sorbic aciddisrupts cell membrane function/inhibits enzymes/inhibits bacterial spore germination (yeasts, molds, some bacteria)
 sulfites and sulfur dioxideinhibits enzymes/forms addition compounds (bacteria, yeasts, molds)


Sensory agents are colorants and flavourings.


Colour is an extremely important sensory characteristic of food. This directly influences the perception of the flavour and quality of a product. The processing of food can cause degradation or loss of natural pigments in the raw materials. In addition, some formulated products, such as sodas, confections, snack foods and ice cream need the addition of colouring agents.

Colorants used as food additives are classified as natural or synthetic. Natural colorants are derived from plant, animal and mineral sources. Synthetic colorants are primarily petroleum-based chemical compounds.


Chemical classColourPlant sourcePigmentProducts
anthocyaninsredstrawberry (Fragaria species)pelargonidin 3-glucoside*beverages, confections, preserves, fruit products
bluegrape (Vitis species)malvidin 3-glucoside*beverages
betacyaninsredbeetroot (Beta vulgaris)betanindairy products, desserts, icings
carotenoids**yellow/orangeannatto (Bixa rellana)bixindairy products, margarine
yellowsaffron (Crocus sativus)crocinrice dishes, bakery products
red/orangepaprika (Capsicum annuum)capsanthinsoups, sauces
orangecarrot (Daucus carota)beta-carotenebakery products, confections
redmushroom (Cantharellus cinnabarinus)canthaxanthinsauces, soups, dressings
phenolicsorange/yellowturmeric (Cuycuma longa)curcumindairy products, con


common nameUnited StatesEuropean Unionproducts
allura red ACFD&C red no. 40gelatin, puddings, dairy products, confections, beverages
brilliant blue FCFFD&C blue no. 1E133beverages, confections, icings, syrups, dairy products
erythrosineFD&C red no. 3E127maraschino cherries
fast green FCFFD&C green no. 3beverages, puddings, ice cream, sherbet, confections
indigo carmineFD&C blue no. 2E132confections, ice cream, bakery products
sunset yellow FCFFD&C yellow no. 6E110bakery products, ice cream, sauces, cereals, beverages
tartrazineFD&C yellow no. 5E102beverages, cereals, bakery products, ice cream, sauces


The flavour of food results from the stimulation the taste and smell receptors by specific food molecules. Taste reception is performed by the taste bud cells.

The five basic taste sensations are sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami(savoury)—are detected in regions of the tongue, mouth and throat.

In addition to the basic tastes, the flavouring molecules in food stimulate specific olfactory cells in the nasal cavity. These cells can detect more than 10,000 different stimuli, thus fine-tuning the flavour sensation of a food.

A flavour additive is a single chemical or blend of chemicals of natural or synthetic origin that provides all or part of the flavour impact of a particular food. These chemicals are added in order to replace flavour lost in processing and to develop new products. Flavourings are the largest group of food additives, with more than 1,200 compounds available for commercial use.

Natural flavourings are derived or extracted from plants, spices, herbs, animals, or microbial fermentations.

Artificial flavourings are mixtures of synthetic compounds that may be chemically identical to natural flavourings. Artificial flavourings are often used in food products because of the high cost, lack of availability, or insufficient potency of natural flavourings.

Flavour enhancers are compounds that are added to a food in order to supplement or enhance its own natural flavour.

The concept of flavour enhancement originated in Asia, where cooks added seaweed to soup stocks in order to provide a richer flavour to certain foods. The flavour enhancing component of seaweed was identified as the amino acid L- glutamate and monosodium glutamate (MSG).

The cancer risk increases with the consumption of the following foods.

  1. Refined and artificial sugary foods like high fructose corn syrup increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. Replace the refined and artificial sugar with natural sweeteners like honey, molasses, maple syrup.
  2. White flour consumed in excess amountshas shown to increase the risk of breast cancer. Replace white flour with whole wheat, barley, quinoa or almond flour.
  3. Processed meats like ham, bacon and sausage in excess intake increase the risk of colorectal cancer. Replace with organic meat.
  4. Hydrogenated oils when processed become chemically altered and in high amounts increase the risk of breast, skin, prostate and colorectal cancers.
  5. Microwave popcorn should be avoided as there is an extremely toxic chemical perfluorooctanoic acid and preservative propyl gallate. There is an increased risk of kidney and bladder cancer.
  6. Potato chips. The food process of these chips produces a carcinogen acrylamide.  The addition of artificial flavours and preservatives increase the risk of ovarian, breast, gastrointestinal and prostate cancers. Replace with homemade chips either baked or fried in olive oil. Banana, plantain, apple, zucchini or kale are all good examples for homemade chips.

In conclusion, we should avoid ultra-processed foods altogether. Eat more whole foods and plant-based foods. This will result in a healthier diet and reduce the risk of developing lifestyle diseases like obesity, hypertension, diabetes. A plant-based and whole food diet also significantly reduces the risk for developing cancer. Make the healthy food choice today and remember we are what we eat.

I look forward to your comments.

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