Many Americans spend up to 90 percent of their food budget on processed foods, which are more convenient and can be less expensive than fresh foods, but health and nutrition experts say such foods may be less healthy than fresh foods.
Dietitian Kate Patton and intern Sara Saliba of the Cleveland Clinic’s Section of Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation explain the concerns. “Processed food has been altered in some way from its natural state,” Patton says. Often, processed foods have additives—substances that add color, enhance flavor or increase the product’s shelf life, for example. “Additives are not necessarily bad,” Patton says. “Most foods do require additives to prevent spoilage and maintain their nutritional value.”
Thousands of food additives have received Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for use in food and consuming small amounts of the additives is generally considered safe. But the Cleveland Clinic cautions that limiting food additive consumption may be warranted. Saliba points out, “Eating a diet rich in processed foods is linked to many health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer.”
Patton and Saliba describe potential problems with some widely used additives. Sodium nitrites help stabilize, flavor, and provide a bright red color to meat. When the meat is cooked at high temperatures or combines with stomach acid, sodium nitrite can produce nitrosamines, which are linked to an increased risk of pancreatic and colorectal cancer. Sulfites are a popular preservative, but many people are sensitive to them, and they can aggravate asthma and deplete vitamin B1 (thiamine). These additives have been banned from use on fresh fruits and vegetables but are still present in processed foods. The food label will list sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfite, sodium bisulfite, and sodium sulfite.
Trans fats, partially hydrogenated oils used to improve the texture, shelf life, and long-term flavor of foods, can increase LDL or bad cholesterol, which increases the risk for heart disease. In June the FDA announced a trans fat ban that will be phased in over a three-year period. But food companies can petition the FDA for permission to continue using trans fats in certain products and trade groups have indicated that they will do so.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor and texture enhancer in Asian foods and other processed foods can produce nausea, breathing problems, and other reactions in people with MSG sensitivity. And MSG adds sodium to the food, which can elevate blood pressure. FD&C yellow #5 and #6 food coloring has been linked to hyperactivity in children and can cause severe allergic reactions, especially in people with asthma.
Patton and Saliba advise consumers to buy more fresh foods than processed—“convenience”—foods. If fresh foods are not available, they suggest buying frozen fruits and vegetables without any additives and avoiding prepackaged, pre-cooked meals, which can be high in sodium and additives. Cooking meals at home allows consumers to know what is in their food and avoid unwanted additives. Finally, Patton and Saliba urge consumers to read food labels and be wary of “ingredients you can’t pronounce.”