WTF is Processed Food and Why is it Going to Kill Us?

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You know what I love? Food. You know what I love even more than food? PROCESSED FOOD. Who wants to eat some dry-ass chickpeas when you could put those motherfuckers in this magical machine called a “food processor” and process the FUCK out of it, along with some garlic and tahini and hold on a second, I’m gonna need a minute to be with my hummus.

Okay sorry, about that.

You’ve probably heard that processed foods are bad for you — I used to only hear that from my fellow dirty hippy vegetarian-types, but these days it’s pretty common advice to avoid “processed foods” if you want to be healthy. But here’s a thing I’ve never really understood: what makes a food “processed,” and how does processing food suddenly turn it into something that’s bad for you? What is it about hummus that’s so much worse than a handful of chickpeas and sesame seeds?

The answer is that there are different levels of “processing,” and because all foods are different and it’s on a spectrum, there is no clear definition of what is “processed” and how that can turn a good food into a bad food.

So to take my chickpea example, this is a chickpea as it is harvested, unprocessed. I mean, it’s not, but it looks like it. Technically it became processed when someone put it in a can with some salt — adding a preservative counts as primary processing (again, not a hard and fast scientific term but a helpful way to think about it). It’s still not exactly a delicious meal, though, so when I add tahini, garlic, and some olive oil and turn it into hummus, that’s secondary processing — the kind of thing that does turn it into a delicious meal but doesn’t necessarily make it “unhealthy.” It can be grinding chickpeas up, or baking a vegetable, or drying it out like jerky. All of these things count as processing.

So that’s primary and secondary processing, but there’s a third level at which point a food can be considered “ultra-processed.” That would be, say, if we took this hummus, formed it into patties, deep fried it, added a bunch of preservatives, and put it in the freezer section of your local grocery store where you could buy it and heat it up.

It’s this “ultra-processed” food that several studies have linked to poor health, including four big studies that were just published last month. One big study out of France published May 19 found that people who consumed the most ultra-processed food had a 25% increased chance of dying early compared to people who ate the least. Spanish researchers just found in a study that people eating the most processed food had a 62% increased risk of death, and another Spanish study published May 4 found that ultra-processed foods may be linked with depression. Finally, an NIH study published May 16 found that people on ultra-processed foods consumed far more calories than people eating normal food.

So what is it about that third level of processing that suddenly makes our food so dangerous?

Processing, even that small amount, can change the nutrition of a food. For instance, your food processor has done the work that your digestion did previously, so maybe there are a few extra calories in it now (but not really so much that you have to run to update your fitness tracker). The bigger issue is that when it comes to hummus, I’m much more likely to eat it all, like, in one sitting, whereas I am not terribly likely to eat an entire can of chickpeas. So, the nutrition may be more or less the same, but I’m more likely to eat a lot of it, which could be a negative. That’s what the NIH study found, in essence — people were allowed to eat however much they wanted, but the people eating processed foods ate way more than the other group, even though they didn’t realize it and they didn’t necessarily even like that food more. The two groups actually swapped diets after two weeks and the results were exactly the same: people eating the ultraprocessed foods ate more but didn’t even enjoy it more. What’s the point??? I love eating a lot of stuff but it should at least be good stuff.

So the NHS study is legit — if you’re eating ultra-processed foods, you might be able to help yourself by paying more attention to how much you’re eating. Slow down, watch your portions, don’t gorge yourself.

But how about those other doom and gloom studies? Does eating more ultra-processed food lead you to depression and an early grave?

Well, eating more calories can do that — it’s the cause of a lot of kinds of cancer, heart disease, and other common causes of death. But that said, those studies failed to show causation. I’ve been very open about the fact that I suffer from depression, and my depressive symptoms and what I eat are constantly in a feedback loop of the most annoying kind. When I’m depressed, I eat garbage, and I eat more of it than I need. I don’t feel like cooking, or eating a god damn apple. I don’t even want premade hummus! I want a frozen pizza and a pile of Oreos.

By the way, this video is brought to you by Oreos. Megastuff Oreos — why fucking bother with less fake vegan cream than your disgusting body deserves?

And while I’m gorging on those Oreos, I’m also not exercising, like, at all. I’m not taking care of myself in any other way. And I’m not alone! Lots of people are the same way, so it’s really difficult for studies to tease out the causation in cases like this, as the NHS pointed out in a document released on May 30 in response to these studies. They also call out my earlier point: there is no real definition for “processed”, and these studies made some questionable choices about what is considered processed. Salami, for instance? Processed. Cheese, made using many chemicals and preservatives? Not processed.

Even if you accept these studies on their face, the end effect isn’t as large as you might worry. A 62% increase in your risk isn’t that much when the risk is low to begin with.

So should you cut out all processed food from your diet? I mean, sure, if you plan to live forever that might be a good first step. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s probably not that big of a deal. The better advice to improve your health? Honestly I have to defer to the excellent advice of Michael Pollan: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Not a single study has been able to refute the wisdom in that, and the good news is that it allows for the occasional Oreo binge.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. What sort of ‘food’ and what sort of ‘process?’
    Industrial packaged food seems to include an array of substances that nobody would pick to start with; ‘Crystalized Cottonseed oil’ anyone? That’s what ‘Crisco’s’ name is derived from.
    Garbanzos, sesame seeds, garlic, olive oil are a long way from corn syrup, hydrogenated seed oils, cornstarch, weird thickening ‘gums,’ etc. etc.

  2. Very interesting analysis, Rebecca. Your thoughts echoed mine when I first heard of this.

    So yeah, point 1, eating ultraprocessed food allows you to eat more, easily, and there lies the harm.

    I would love to see one of these studies where actual calorie intake was constant, rather than just “eat as much as you like”. A lot of Michael Moseley’s “research” fails in that respect, it drives me crazy.

    Point 2 , depressed people eat a lot of ultraprocessed food (because it’s easy and you don’t feel like cooking).
    So depression is associated with ultraprocessed food.

    Depression is also associated with poor health outcomes. No shit, Sherlock! Now tell me, which is cause and which is effect?

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