Modern Diet Myth No. 9: Processed foods are bad for your health

We regularly hear that processed foods are not good for health. Truth or myth?

What’s wrong with food processing?

There are three major criticisms of food processing and how it affects the nutritional quality of foods. The first is that processing lowers the nutrient content of a food either by exposing it to heat or by discarding a nutrient-rich portion. Secondly, during processing so-called ‘nutrients of concern’, such as saturated fat, salt and sugar, may be added. A third criticism is that processing may alter the nature of a food unfavourably, for example, by increasing its glycaemic index.

All of these things are true, so processed foods are obviously worse for health than unprocessed foods. Right?

Not so fast.

What’s right with food processing?

If you buy a piece of lean rump steak from your local butcher, do you eat it in its natural raw form or do you toss it into a hot frying pan first? Yes, this heat processing causes some loss of nutrients but we do it because cooked meat tastes so much better than raw meat. Also, cooked meat is much safer to eat than uncooked meat.

The same issues apply when food is processed by a food manufacturer. Safety is the paramount concern and strict regulations must be adhered to. Modern processed foods are so safe that any breakdown in food safety standards usually makes front page news.

Taste versus ‘nutrients of concern’

Taste is one of key things determining whether people buy this food or that. Yet making, say, grain foods taste good inevitably involves adding some ‘nutrients of concern’. Even staple grain foods like bread have added salt, which makes the difference between a palatable product and one that very few people would buy.

Adding fewer ‘nutrients of concern’ to a food may make good sense from a nutritional point of view but if nobody buys the less palatable product the nutritional benefits are never realised.

Processed food is better than no food at all

Some natural products actually require processing to turn them into food for humans. Wheat in its raw, natural state is indigestible and passes straight through the body. But processing wheat turns it into food that feeds millions of people. The same goes for canola seeds. Canola oil certainly has fewer nutrients than the seed from which it came, but some food is better than no food. And besides, the meal from the canola seed isn’t wasted – it’s fed to animals which in turn nourish us.

Image: source


Processed foods are often damned and praised selectively. Take processed milk for example: sweetening milk with sugar to make chocolate milk is generally frowned upon, yet processing milk into cheese is considered okay, despite the higher saturated fat and salt content of cheese. How come? Is it that we like the IDEA of cheese making – a process with a farmhouse tradition, and we don’t like the IDEA of making chocolate milk in a modern factory? Sounds more philosophical that scientific.

In the media we often hear that margarine is more processed than butter and therefore is a less healthy choice. Why? Isn’t the margarine richer in essential nutrients? Doesn’t margarine lower blood cholesterol relative to butter? What has processing got to do with it?

If processing fats is a concern, why aren’t we concerned about how cows process fats? Cows eat lots of essential polyunsaturated fats in grass and grain but then convert most of them to saturated and trans fats – bad fats – which end up in the milk and meat. But the adverse effects of this bovine processing seem to pass without comment.

The logic seems to be that if a cow processes fat, that’s a good thing, even if the outcome is bad. But if humans process fat, that’s a bad thing, even if the outcome is good.

Objective criteria required

Whether a food is processed or not is simply a very poor way of determining whether it’s a healthy choice. More objective criteria that are actually relevant to human health are required, such as whether a food is nutrient-rich or nutrient poor, low or high in fibre, low or high in glycaemic index, low or high in saturated and trans fats, and so on.

The trouble is, when you take this objective approach many processed foods actually appear to be healthy choices.


8 thoughts on “Modern Diet Myth No. 9: Processed foods are bad for your health

  1. Bill, you are a sucker for punishment. I am wondering how long it will take before the “margarine is one step away from plastic” comments appear on this page again. Perhaps they can tell us what that step is.
    I am intrigued by this irrational fear of processing food. Surely making food more palatable & easy to digest is a good thing. Raw potato or pumpkin immediately spring to mind as food that needs processing. I think the inference is if a person eats processed food it means they only eat fast food of some description, which is rather illogical. Thanks again for your thought provoking articles.

    • Yes Mary, I guess I am a sucker for punishment. It’s my interest in facts, not myths.
      When it comes to margarine I see a simple food – essentially an emulsion of vegetable oil and water. The last time I heated some margarine in a pan it didn’t turn to plastic. No, there was just vegetable oil once the water boiled off. Nothing to see here folks.
      Regards, Bill

  2. There are many more than 3 concerns with ‘processed’ food!! Personally I avoid food in packets with lots of ingredients in it (aka processed food) because I have allergies and intolerances which include a particular preservative, yeast , soy and about 20 other things. I have very successfully minimised my reactions by doing this. I would heartily recommend this approach as it has greatly enhanced my health.

    I am perplexed that you are making this argument Bill as it would seem to me that seeking food in its natural form, avoiding additives and cooking fresh food from scratch (in other words avoiding ‘processed’ food) are things that most nutritionists recommend.

    • Hello Jenny. Yet again, you fail to make the distinction between individual health and population health. Individuals with multiple allergies and intolerances need to take specific steps when making food choices, and are aided by the labelling requirements of processed foods. But the vast majority of the population bases their food choices on other criteria. Regards, Bill

    • Everything is ‘natural’. Nature is the totality of the Universe. The distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘man’ is a religious meme, not at all meaningful or useful to science.

  3. I am indifferent to the ‘health’ fanaticism that grips our Crypto-Protestant culture, but I vastly prefer the taste and consistency of processed foods. The texture, flavor, smell and availability are almost always the same, which means if I get one can of Ravioli I like the next one isn’t going to taste like cardboard or have some disgusting garbage like broccoli (I don’t eat vegetables that aren’t ground into sauce).
    Basically, the fear or processed foods is a combination of media fear-mongering pseudo-science and the fact that a lot of people are Luddite cowards.

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