Processed Foods: Death by Affection

Processed Foods: Death by Affection

I admit it. I love a good sweet now and then. OK. I love them all the time, but I control myself. About two months ago I had a craving for oatmeal cookies. I bought a box from a local grocery store chain. I could only eat a couple of them, and then I gave Dave two of them (when they were fresh) and I saved the rest. Today, I was going through my cabinets and found the cookies. They were still moist and ready to eat, just like they were two months ago. That got me thinking. How good could processed foods with preservatives be good for us?

The answer, they are NOT.

What are processed foods?

When we refer to processed foods we are talking about those that are chemically treated. They contain refined ingredients and artificial substances. Of course, they have their positives, especially from the point of view of the sellers, but these substances can be quite harmful. Read on.


In order to keep the cookies fresh, preservatives are added. In many foods, color has been added to make them look more attractive to consumers. Additives for flavor and texture are also added to make them more palatable. When you look at the labels to see what’s added to many of these foods, the lists are long. These foods contain things that you would never consider eating. For the cookies, here are the ingredients:

Sugar, Bleached Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate Riboflavin and Folic Acid), Oats, Vegetable Shortening (Palm Oil), Raisins, Eggs, Butter (Milk), Water, Contains 2% or Less of each of the following: Molasses, Baking Soda, Salt, Spices, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Contains Milk, Egg and Wheat, May contain Soy, Peanuts and Tree Nuts.

Note that the US Food and Drug Administration requires that listed “ingredients [be] in descending order of predominance by weight, so the ingredient that weighs the most is listed first, and the ingredient that weighs the least is listed last” (FDA 2015). Dave’s cookies, despite being labeled as “oatmeal,” really ought to be called sugar cookies.

What about sugar?

Sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup

Processed foods are often loaded with sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Sugary foods and drinks are loaded with empty calories with basically no nutritional value. Excess dietary sugar leads to insulin resistance and type 2-diabetes. (And don’t be fooled by labels that claim “sugar-free” yet still admit to high levels of corn syrup—that’s legal, although not particularly honest.)

We have mechanisms in our brain and body that help us regulate energy balance in our bodies. Food manufacturers have found the combination of flavors and additives (such as sugar and salt) that bypass our regulatory abilities. As a result, processed foods are very rewarding to our brains and often lead us to overeat.

Refined Carbohydrates

Processed foods are high in refined or simple carbohydrates. When consumed, they release energy quickly, causing sugar spikes and an increase in insulin levels. They make us feel good initially and then there is an energy crash later. When we feel a crash coming on, we often crave more of the same foods that keep us “up,” which leads us to doing it all over again.

Nutrient-Poor Foods

In the processing of the food, nutrients are lost. Therefore, vitamins and minerals are replaced but not to the level of natural foods. If a person eats a diet based primarily in processed foods, they will likely be nutrient deficient.

Lack of Fiber

Fiber is important for general health, and again it’s often lacking in processed foods. Fiber slows down the absorption of carbohydrates, helps us maintain a normal weight, promotes good bacteria in the gut, decreases the risk of colon cancer and prevents constipation. Processed foods generally have the fiber removed. This makes it much easier to digest, requiring less energy. Eating processed food causes us to eat more and burn less than if we eat foods that are whole and unprocessed.

Trans fats

Processed foods are often loaded with these. Made with cheap vegetable oils that become trans fats, which are associated with inflammation and heart disease. That is why the FDA has banned them. That’s right—that’s how bad they are for you! But the ban does not start until 2018. That is why you need to look on the food label for partially hydrogenated oils and avoid foods that contain them. Just stay away. Now.

Needless to say, I am going to throw out the rest of the 2-month old cookies, and will avoid them in the future, and I have already apologized to Dave. After learning more about processed foods, it is clear it is best to avoid them. An occasional indulgence now and then is fine and love the taste and the false energy lift they provide, but indulge only on occasion; don’t make this stuff (it really is border-line poison) part of your daily menu. Sticking with whole foods is the key.

Otherwise, it could be deadly by leading to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and a variety of inflammatory ills.



Robin H. Miller MD, MHS & David Es. Kahn MS, CPT