Are processed foods really that bad?

At VavistaLife we encourage changing our diet to include more ‘real’ food, as close to its natural state as possible… shunning processed versions where possible. But is that based on any real evidence?

We have found previous studies that show how highly processed junk foods can increase addictive-type behaviour… and now further research has shown again that processed foods may not be helping our health or waistline.

What are “processed foods”?

“Processed foods” are defined as any foods other than raw agricultural commodities and can be categorised by the extent of change in the food as a result of processing. And the fact is that they are making up more and more of our daily intake – a recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that the majority of calories consumed by U.S. households may come from processed foods.

The researchers looked at purchases of packaged goods in almost 160,000 households and classified over 1.2 million products by the extent of processing. They found that more than 3/4 of the calories in purchases by U.S. households were found in moderately and highly processed foods and drinks. What’s more, the majority of these processed foods had more than 10% of their calories from saturated fat, 15% from sugar, and were high in salt. In comparison, only around 6% of less-processed foods, (those requiring cooking or other preparation) fell into this category.

It was also apparent that these highly processed foods were usually convenience / ready –to-eat purchases – a reflection of our increasingly busy lifestyles or have we simply forgotten how to cook from scratch?

It seems that we are relying more and more on convenience, processed foods – yet these tend to be worse for us with high saturated fat, salt and sugar content. Just by getting back into the habit of buying fresh food and cooking from scratch we can easily make our diet healthier. What’s more, speaking as someone who used to rely totally on ‘ping food’ (microwave meals) but now makes the effort to cook ‘real food’, I could never go back to eating ready meals. Not only do they taste horrible in comparison – salty, sugary and processed – but it’s a much more expensive way to eat and I’ve got better things to spend my hard-earned cash on!

Other options

Whilst on the subject of real food, another study has linked nut consumption with reduced risk of various diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. According to researchers, just half a handful of tree nuts or peanuts per day (that’s about 15g) was associated with a lower risk of premature death from these diseases, in the 120,000 participants studied. Studies like these are at risk of considerable bias – was it the nuts themselves that reduced these risks or do nut-eaters tend to have other, healthy behaviour patterns that are responsible for their lower risk of death? However, it adds to other, previously reported, evidence that links nuts and other components of the Mediterranean diet with better health.

Interestingly, the benefit didn’t hold for peanut butter – presumably as the processed variety may often contain added sugar, salt and less healthy fats. Make your own, instead, by blitzing your choice of nuts in a heavyweight food processor and I am sure your home-made nut butter will do you a whole heap of good – and taste better too. Beware though – increasing much beyond 15g a day didn’t add additional benefit… perhaps because the high calorie count of nuts would soon contribute to the health risks of a bulging waistline if you were to overdo it.


Is the degree of food processing and convenience linked with the nutritional quality of foods purchased by US households? Jennifer M Poti, Michelle A Mendez, Shu Wen Ng, and Barry M Popkin. Am J Clin Nutr 2015

Relationship of tree nut, peanut, and peanut butter intake with total and cause-specific mortality: a cohort study and meta-analysis, Piet van den Brandt et al., International Journal of Epidemiology. June 2015.