Get excited about nutrition, and learn as you go with these information-packed resources on a wide variety of nutrition-centric topics! Our bistroMD experts review the importance of the macronutrients protein, fat, and carbohydrates, as well as how to make them work most efficiently for you.

The Dangers of Processed Foods

Processed foods have been known to be dangerous for some time now. With researchers and dieticians recommending fresher alternatives as much as possible. And with good reason, processed foods have been linked to obesity, diabetes, and numerous heart problems. While not all processed foods are “processed” to the same degree, there can still be dangers with foods that aren’t found in the frozen food aisle.


Processed food is a loose term, generally thrown around to validate the rising of America’s growing obesity epidemic. And though some processed foods can be filled with nutrients, the general consumption is on highly processed foods, rich in calories and undesirable ingredients. So what are processed foods and their potential dangers to health?

What Are Processed Foods?

Broadly speaking, processed foods are essentially all products that have been manipulated in some way, shape, or form. The preparation can be small, large, or somewhere in between. Below is suggestive of minimally and highly processed foods, numbered from the least (number one) to most processed (number five):

1. The most minimally processed foods are products that are pre-prepped for convenient use - including chopped veggies and roasted nuts.

2. Canned products (tuna, beans, tomatoes, etc.) are captured to lock-in nutrients and flavors at their peak.

3. Some canned and jarred products are processed a step further, especially to enhance flavor and preservation, and includes tomato sauce containing added sugar and salt.

4. Foods that are ready-to-eat and wrapped are more heavily processed - think of your "go-to" snacks such as crackers, chips, and boxed cookies.

5. Frozen and pre-made meals are the most processed form available. Mostly found in the freezer section, products include pizzas and microwavable entrees.

Dangers of Processed Foods

The dangers of processed foods mostly stem from the degree of manipulation and these common ingredients added to packaged food products:

Sugar is no stranger in the food supply, as it is widely found in a variety of sources. Sweet treats and desserts are not the only culprits of sugar, as it hides in sauces, dressings, breads, and several other products. But when it really comes down to the truth of sugar, the general population is consuming way too much (which is to be expected and reasoned, considering its wide availability). Long story short, the body does not need sugar in abundance. And when consumed in excess, it is ultimately stored as fat, and leads to overweight, obesity, and weight-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Trans Fats and Oils
Despite the common misconception of fat, it is a critical macronutrient the body needs for proper functioning. However, the concern comes not only from the amount of fat, but the type of fat. Specifically, trans fat has consistently shown to harm health, including increasing the risk of heart disease. Trans fat is mostly found in convenient, processed products and fried foods, and is also identified as "(partially) hydrogenated oil" and "hydrogenation."

Also recognized as salt, sodium is widely used in the food supply, mostly to enhance flavor and prolong shelf-life. Sodium provokes danger, especially if managing high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. Unmanaged hypertension can ultimately damage the heart and arteries, and raise the risk of heart attack, congestive heart failure, and stroke.

Processing the Positives

Though continually feasting on highly processed foods (mostly in numbers four and five identified above) can create dangerous health consequences, there are some positive qualities of processed foods. Beneficially, some processed foods are fortified with key nutrients the body needs. For instance, milk is often fortified with vitamin D, while other products may be fortified with fiber. Additionally, some processed foods are highly nutritious without compromising the convenience factor. Bagged salads, greens and spinach, chopped veggies, and canned fruit (packaged in its own juice or water) have made healthy eating a possibility for busy individuals. So when it really comes down to choosing packaged products, pay most attention to the nutrition facts and ingredients label, and shy away from products rich in fat, sugar, and sodium.

Written By Sarah Asay, RDN. Published on October 16, 2017. Updated on October 24, 2017.


Follow @bistroMD

Start Your Diet Today!

Reality Check - Your Free Diet Analysis

Simply answer a few questions so we can figure out your weight loss goals and provide solutions for a lighter, healthier you. Our weight loss meal plans are designed to help real people achieve real and lasting success.

as seen on...   
Dr Phil
Lifetime Network
The Biggest Loser
The Doctors