In our hectic, modern lives, it’s difficult to find time to prepare nourishing meals from scratch. The grocery stores are filled with convenience-based foods: boxed dinners, pouched foods, frozen meals, and snacks galore. Even organic grocery mainstays such as Whole Foods offer hundreds of pre-packaged food products. If one has no time or skills to cook, they can easily find any sort of meal to feed their family.
But how is it possible for pre-prepared meals to not only be ready to eat but also last long enough on the shelves to avoid spoilage? What’s in these pre-packaged foods to make them both palatable and easily shipped around the country? To be able to be heated and served in a matter of just 60 seconds?
These are what we often call processed or convenience foods, and unfortunately, they have a dark side. As you may have noticed from the fresh produce rotting in your fridge, food typically does not keep well. So, is it safe to feed your family these instant meals and pre-packaged foods? Let’s take a look at what really goes into those products.
What constitutes processed food?
First, let’s define what we’re talking about. Food that’s been prepped for easy consumption is not necessarily processed. For example, a pre-bagged salad mix has been processed, but nothing has been done to extend its shelf life. It decomposes on a similar timeline as greens you would pick up at your local farmers’ market. When we talk about processed foods, we’re usually referring to food products and meals that are designed for convenience. For example, any food that can instantly be mixed out of a box or pouch must be processed, simply because most of the ingredients have already been combined and yet something has been added to make the product shelf-stable.
We’re also not talking about preserved food products. Pickling vegetables, canning fruit preserves, or canning vegetables are beans or cranes may have some impact on the amount of sodium or sugar you’re consuming in your diet. However, they are not inherently dangerous. In fact, some of those products have noticeable benefits. Fermented foods such as kimchi and yogurt are technically processed, yet the processing actually generates nutritional benefits.
What we’re really talking about are the instant meals. That includes any boxed dinners, pouches of food that can instantly be heated for immediate consumption, and frozen meals. It also includes pre-boxed mixes that only require one fresh ingredient to make. The most common culprits are macaroni and cheese mixes, cake mixes, premixed casserole mixes such as hamburger helper, etc. These are what we call ultra-processed foods.
Problems with ultra-processed foods
An instant meal such as a mac-and-cheese mix or Hamburger Helper typically has ingredients such as dehydrated milk or cheese. To help keep ingredients from breaking down, these mixes often contain high levels of sodium and sugar.
Salt in particular is a well-known preservative. That’s actually why salt rose in popularity centuries ago as part of the spice trade. Back then, salt was used to dry meats to allow them to be shipped overseas. That wasn’t too terrible, but today’s sodium-heavy products heavily rely on salt as a means of enhancing the product’s shelf stability. The goal is to have products be shipped as far as possible and sit on grocery store shelves for as long as possible.
Another disadvantage of these high-salt, high-sugar processed foods is that they tend to taste better. That makes them addictive. How many of us have craved a salty snack after a long day especially when we don’t feel like cooking? And as you may have guessed, processed foods tend to be higher in calories than non-processed or minimally processed foods.
They are also quicker to digest. For example, the refined grains and dehydrated dairy in your typical mac-and-cheese box dinner will quickly convert to glucose in the blood. This is not only a short-term source of energy but also one that can affect your insulin sensitivity, ultimately leading to an increased risk of diabetes.
Among the biggest risks of ultra-processed foods, though, is that there full of synthetic additives meant to enhance the taste and shelf stability of the product. Some of these additives have seriously negative health effects.
Worrisome ingredients in processed foods
Excessive salt and sugar are never good additions to your diet. As we mentioned, use ingredients are often added to processed food products to extend their shelf life and enhance their taste. After all, processed foods don’t exactly have the rich taste and fresh flavor of unprocessed foods! Sugar may appear in multiple forms, including high fructose corn syrup evaporated cane juice, dextrose, malt syrup, and so on.
More natural forms of sugar, including honey, agave nectar, coconut sugar, and molasses, may also be added. These ingredients aren’t inherently bad, but keep in mind that they are often used to enhance taste, and you may be getting a higher level of sugar than needed for your diet.
Sodium can also appear in processed foods in insidious ways. Compounds such as monosodium glutamate, aka MSG, or disodium phosphate, are commonly used to enhance the taste of pre-packaged foods, especially pasta mixes such as instant ramen. You will also see these compounds added to many boxed grains and snack foods, as they add the salty flavor that people end up craving.
Then there are the preservatives. There are countless preservatives used in food products, including ascorbic acid, sodium benzoate weight, potassium sorbate, and many others. While these substances are not initially dangerous, many of them can be metabolized into harmful chemicals. Some, such as the nitrates and nitrites that are famously used to preserve meats for cold cuts, have been linked to thyroid disorders and cancer.
Other ingredients are designed to bind the product’s ingredients together and prevent unsightly separation. These are called emulsifiers, and they include soy lecithin and monoglycerides. These disrupt our natural levels of reproductive hormones and blood sugar.
Add in all the varieties of synthetic dyes and thickeners, such as xanthan gum and carrageenan, and your instant meals seemed to be mostly synthetic chemicals.
Yes, some of these ingredients can be derived from natural sources. However, you’re simply getting way more of them than you would get from whole foods. More research is needed, but we still don’t know the long-term effects of excessive consumption of these processed ingredients. It’s safe to say that high levels of sugar and sodium are never good for your nutritional needs. And as many food dyes have been shown to have serious health effects including an increased risk of cancer, it simply makes sense to minimize these ingredients in your diet.
And let’s not forget the packaging that allows these products to remain shelf-stable. Even the most well-preserved foods often can’t be packaged in any old cardboard or plastic. They must be wrapped in lining that is often composed of PFAS, bisphenols (e.g. BPA), and perfluoroalkyl chemicals, aka PFCs. All these substances have been linked to fertility issues, immune disorders, thyroid disorders, and respiratory distress.
In short, the actual consumable ingredients in a processed food product are not the only risk factors. How the product is packaged plays a big role in your exposure to harmful chemicals as well.
Wrapping up: how to keep your family safe
So, what can you do, especially if you struggle to find time to cook fresh meals from scratch? Thankfully, some sustainable companies are releasing minimally processed yet convenient meals that are not laden with synthetic chemicals. However, it’s always better to go as fresh and unprocessed as possible. One tactic that many busy families have found helpful is to simply consume as many whole grains and vegetables as possible.
When you can, purchase fresh frozen meat from your local butcher or grocery store, then freeze as much as possible. You can often find whole beans and grains for relatively cheap in your grocery store. It may take some practice, but pre-soaking beans or grains and cooking them with seasonings other than salt can help you avoid those instant meals.
Produce is notoriously hard to access and keep fresh, but with a bit of research, you can often make it work for your family. Shop at local farmers’ markets whenever possible to avoid produce that has been artificially ripened or doused with pesticides. Separate fruits and vegetables that release ethylene from those that are sensitive to ethylene, and keep in mind that many fruits and vegetables can be frozen as well!
While instant meals may be convenient, the health effects are anything but. Even a couple of hours of food prep and storage can spare your family exposure to toxic chemicals. Plus, you’ll get to enjoy better flavors than what has been artificially enhanced in ultra-processed products. What we eat plays a large role in our overall health profiles and our likelihood of disease. By investing a bit of extra time in obtaining and prepping fresh foods and unprocessed ingredients, we can truly invest in our families’ overall wellness.
This article is inspired by an interview with Debi Carlin Boyle, a certified health and nutrition coach by the Institute of Integrative Nutrition.