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Why is highly processed food bad?

This question originally appreared on Quora. Answer by Bart Loews, Fitness Expert.

First, it's important to understand the different reasons highly processed food is considered unhealthy.

Sign 1:

Google search for processed food you’ll see the typical. A lot of people equate highly processed with fast food. The irony there is how utterly simple fast food is. A McDonald’s hamburger is beef with salt and a bun that you can get anywhere. French Fries are sliced up potatoes fried up in some vegetable oil with salt.

Generally speaking, it seems the general definition of processed food is: food that’s been changed from its original state and food with preservatives added. We’ll get more into that in a minute.

Sign 2:

Look at what people say isn’t highly processed food. If you do a Google search for “non-processed foods.”

Here’s a recipe for homemade tofu. In order to make it you need Soy Milk and Gypsum or Magnesium Chloride. Soy Milk is processed, here’s a way of making it: homemade soy milk. That’s about 15 steps altogether, some fermentation involved, quite a bit of processing, all things considered

My wife is on a dietician supervised elimination diet to try to diagnose some lingering conditions. I got her some Brown Rice pasta that’s gluten free. How do you make this? Basically the same way as normal pasta, you grind up some complex carbohydrate into a flour and mix it with a coagulant like egg or xanthan gum (an excretion from a bacteria). It’s the same process!

The picture I’ve included is ironic because pork bacon is basically just thin sliced pig bellies with some curing (salt) for preservation. The turkey bacon is turkey meat formed into the shape of pig bacon…with preservatives added. Turkey bacon is more processed than pig bacon, but people think it’s not.

Sign 3:

Why do people say it’s bad?

For a long time they didn’t say or they fell back on the Naturalistic fallacy: “if it didn’t come from nature than it must be bad for you”. This is flawed on a number of levels, for one, natural things can kill you out-right (arsenic, opium, ephedra are all natural drugs that can cause death), for another, just because it’s been separated from what it once was doesn’t make it bad.

More recently some articles on studies came out that said that processed meats can cause cancer. There are some question as to how accurate this is and how this occurs. A closer look at studies themselves reveal they are self-reporting based and it could speak more to the quantity of consumption and other lifestyle habits rather than the meat and preservatives alone. Oh, and guess what? One meta study was conducted that determined that for about 80 percent of the foods that everyone eats, there’s at least one study that says that you’ll get cancer from it.

The real problem with “processed food” is that it’s a cheap way of making a lot of food. This is a good thing for most of the world. Cheaply made food (not bad food, just mass produced) is great for the world. We, as humans, can use this process to get food to places in need at a low cost.

In wealthier areas, we highly value time and because processed foods are easy to acquire and fast to eat, we tend to choose them. When you have too much food, you get fat. Obesity brings out a plethora of health risks.

In other words: the problem is the people, not the food.

If you eat enough food, mostly plants, you’ll be fine. That’s right, I never said that it’s good or desirable to only eat processed foods or only eat a specific food. Diversity and moderation is key.

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