Processed food, bad for your health?

Today, consumers can choose from a wide variety of processed foods that add variety and pleasure to the diet. In this text, we analyze some of the myths and realities related to them: “Can you give me a chicken sandwich without preservatives, but it’s free-range bread, gluten-free, with organic tomato and lettuce, that is, that is not genetically modified? Also a soy latte, but sweetened with stevia, please.”

When it comes to food products, we naturally want what is best for us and our bodies. In the last decade, the “green food” revolution has reached its peak and new trends are emerging day by day that direct us towards a “more nutritious and healthy diet”. New trends are accompanied by myths that change radically from day to day, where something that is considered healthy can only be understood the next day as the most harmful food, sowing doubts and fears, leading us to change our habits or stay away from the food we believed to be good for us.

Walking in the supermarket or eating in a restaurant can become a headache, because we are bombarded with labels of all colors, with incomprehensible information, with legends highlighting “gluten-free”, “organic”, “organic” food. natural’, ‘free range’, ‘non-GMO’, ‘fat-free’, ‘lightweight’, confusing us about what they actually mean in order to make an informed decision.

On the other hand, today with the Internet, it is difficult to find true information among so many articles and documents that contradict each other and frustrate us more and more, without it being clear to us what we should consume and what we should avoid. Certainly, consumers’ intuition leads them to opt for what sounds the most understandable and simple to them or what is most accessible to their lifestyle and, of course, their economic income.

But what is fashion without a foundation and what does it offer us true benefit? Do we really have to order gluten-free bread, even if we don’t have gluten intolerance and the fruits and vegetables are organic? Is it best to consume “natural” food? Let’s take an example regarding the “processed foods we dread”. The perception that they are not as nutritious as fresh, and even that they are harmful to health, has multiplied. However, what is reality?

“Fresh” is not really synonymous with nutritious. Many processed foods are just as nutritious as fresh produce that has been stored, or even more so, depending on how they are processed. Frozen vegetables, for example, are processed a few hours after harvesting, and the freezing process involves minimal loss of nutrients, so it actually retains a high proportion of vitamins and minerals. Instead, fresh vegetables are harvested and then transported to the market. It can take days or even weeks until they reach the table, which implies a progressive loss of vitamins regardless of care during transport and storage. (1)

On the other hand, do we know what the food refers to when we say “organic”? It is not a vegetable or fruit that does not contain pesticides. The common perception of organic food is that no pesticides or fungicides are used during its production, however, according to the approval of the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), food is organic if no synthetic pesticides are used in the harvest (2), i.e. they are only used those obtained from “natural” sources (3,4). So they are not without pesticides.

Another great example that causes controversy is transgenic or genetically modified food. Do they really cause cancer? Do we have to run away from them? Are they dangerous? To date, there is no quality scientific evidence that shows that the consumption of this type of food causes cancer. On the contrary, they can have a beneficial effect, reducing the risk of getting cancer. Biotechnology can increase the level of isoflavones, phytoestrogens, carotene and other antioxidants in food, all of which are functional compounds naturally produced and known for their action in cancer prevention. (5, 6)

One of the latest trends circulating is the question why are humans the only animals that continue to consume milk at all stages of their lives? It has been scientifically proven that the consumption of milk and its derivatives is actually beneficial for health at any age. Let’s analyze, for example, the case of pregnant women; During the growth and development of the fetus, it is evident that there are greater general nutritional needs, among which iron, calcium, proteins and vitamins found in milk stand out; When the calcium in the blood that feeds the fetus decreases, the body is sent a signal and parathyroid hormone stimulates the extraction of calcium from the mother’s bones for the fetus, so it is very important that she has a good intake of calcium and vitamin D to avoid decalcification and putting herself in danger. (7)

Another recurring myth is about sweeteners: “Splenda is toxic to you and you can get cancer from consuming it, there is even a rumor that it is stevia and you have to sweeten it only with honey.” agave“. Food safety experts generally agree that there is no conclusive evidence of a causal relationship between synthetic sweeteners and negative effects on human health. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been monitoring consumer complaints about possible side effects for more than 20 years, and carefully controlled clinical studies have not shown that, for example, aspartame (one of sweetened the most commonly used and most studied) cause side effects or allergic reactions in people who do not have the hereditary disease phenylketonuria, which makes them intolerant to phenylalaline (8), a compound present in the sweetener.

In conclusion, there are a number of false myths about the types of food, so it is necessary to emphasize that a proper diet must be sufficient, balanced, safe, varied and whole, and must be appropriate for age, sex, and size. body, physical activity, health status of the person and also appropriate to their culture, economic situation and habits. To do this, it is an obligation to be informed on a scientific basis about the reality of processed food.

Currently, Food Engineering is researching new forms of processing, new ingredients that allow us to transform and preserve the diversity that the field offers to produce food that is safe and beneficial for human health.

Food engineering. Ibeo-American University.
(1) Dangour AD, Dodhia SK, Hayter A, Allen E, Lock K, Uauy R. (2009) Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 90:680–5.
(2) Winter, Katz. (2011) Expert perspective. . . Eat your fruits and vegetables and don’t be afraid of “dirty” rhetoric. Insight into food. available en
(3) “Organic Foods Offer No Health Bonus” (2012) American Council on Science and Health available at
(4) “Safe Fruits and Vegetables” (2015) Food and Agriculture Alliance. available en
(5) Cocklin C, Dibden J, Gibbs D. (2008) Competitiveness versus “clean and green”? Regulation and management of GMOs in Australia and Great Britain. Geoforum, 39- 161-173.
(6) Entine, J. (2014) GMO safety debate is over thanks to new trillion-meal study. Science and Technology, Forbes, meal study/
(7) Carmuega, E. (2004). Benefits of milk for human consumption. Proceedings of the VIII Pan American Milk Congress. Florida, USA.

(8) Schmidt, R. H, Rodrick, GE (2003) FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme: Codex Alimentarius, in Handbook of Food Safety, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New Jersey, USA.

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