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9 Ways Processed Foods Are Slowly Killing People

Food

Processed foods are bad.

They are the main reason why people all over the world are getting fat and sick.

How do we know?

Every time a population adopts a “Western” diet high in processed foods, they get sick.

It happens within a few years. Their genes don’t change, their food does.

The carbohydrates you find in processed foods are usually refined, “simple” carbohydrates. These lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels and cause negative health effects.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Real vs. Processed Food

The word “processed” often causes some confusion, so let me clarify what I mean.

Obviously, most foods we eat are processed in some way. Apples are cut from trees, ground beef has been ground in a machine and butter is cream that has been separated from the milk and churned.

But there is a difference between mechanical processing and chemical processing.

If it’s a single ingredient food with no added chemicals, then it doesn’t matter if it’s been ground or put into a jar. It’s still real food.

However … foods that have been chemically processed and made solely from refined ingredients and artificial substances, are what is generally known as “processed food.”

Here are nine ways that processed foods are bad for your health.

1. Processed Foods Are Usually High in Sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup

Processed foods are usually loaded with added sugar … or its evil twin, High Fructose Corn Syrup.

It is well known that sugar, when consumed in excess, is seriously harmful.

As we all know, sugar is “empty” calories—it has no essential nutrients, but a large amount of energy.

But empty calories are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the harmful effects of sugar …

Many studies show that sugar can have devastating effects on metabolism that go way beyond its calorie content.

It can lead to insulin resistance, high triglycerides, increased levels of the harmful cholesterol and increased fat accumulation in the liver and abdominal cavity.

Not surprisingly, sugar consumption is strongly associated with some of the world’s leading killers … including heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer.

Most people aren’t putting massive amounts of sugar in their coffee or on top of their cereal, they’re getting it from processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages.

Bottom Line: Processed foods and beverages are the biggest sources of added sugar (and HFCS) in the diet. Sugar is very unhealthy and can have serious adverse effects on metabolism when consumed in excess.

2. Processed Foods Are “Hyper Rewarding” and Lead to Overconsumption

We all want to eat good food. That’s just human nature.

Evolution provided us with taste buds that are supposed to help us navigate the natural food environment.

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Our appetite gravitates towards foods that are sweet, salty and fatty, because we know such foods contain energy and nutrients that we need for survival.

Obviously, if a food manufacturer wants to succeed and get people to buy their product, it has to taste good.

But today, the competition is fierce. There are many different food manufacturers, all competing with each other.

For this reason, massive resources are spent on making foods as desirable as possible.

Many processed foods have been engineered to be so incredibly “rewarding” to the brain, that they overpower anything we might have come across in nature.

We have complicated mechanisms in our bodies and brains that are supposed to regulate energy balance (how much we eat and how much we burn)—which, until very recently in evolutionary history, worked to keep us at a healthy weight.

There is quite a lot of evidence that the reward value of foods can bypass the innate defense mechanism and make us start eating much more than we need, so much that it starts to compromise our health.

This is also known as the “food reward hypothesis of obesity.”

The truth is, processed foods are so incredibly rewarding to our brains that they affect our thoughts and behavior, making us eat more and more until eventually we become sick.

Good food is good, but foods that are engineered to be hyper rewarding, effectively short circuiting our innate brakes against overconsumption, are NOT good.

Bottom Line: Food manufacturers spend massive amounts of resources on making their foods as “rewarding” as possible to the brain, which leads to overconsumption.

3. Processed Foods Contain All Sorts of Artificial Ingredients

If you look at the ingredients label for a processed, packaged food, chances are that you won’t have a clue what some of the ingredients are.

That’s because many of the ingredients in there aren’t actual food… they are artificial chemicals that are added for various purposes.

This is an example of a processed food, an Atkins Advantage bar, which is actually marketed as a low-carb friendly health food.

I don’t know what this is, but it most certainly isn’t food.

Highly processed foods often contain:

  • Preservatives: Chemicals that prevent the food from rotting.
  • Colorants: Chemicals that are used to give the food a specific color.
  • Flavor: Chemicals that give the food a particular flavor.
  • Texturants: Chemicals that give a particular texture.

Keep in mind that processed foods can contain dozens of additional chemicals that aren’t even listed on the label.

For example, “artificial flavor” is a proprietary blend. Manufacturers don’t have to disclose exactly what it means and it is usually a combination of chemicals.

For this reason, if you see “artificial flavor” on an ingredients list, it could mean that there are 10 or more additional chemicals that are blended in to give a specific flavor.

Of course, most of these chemicals have allegedly been tested for safety. But given that the regulatory authorities still think that sugar and vegetable oils are safe, I personally take their “stamp of approval” with a grain of salt.

Bottom Line: Most highly processed foods are loaded with artificial chemicals, including flavorants, texturants, colorants and preservatives.

4. Many People Can Literally Become Addicted to Processed Junk Foods

The “hyper rewarding” nature of processed foods can have serious consequences for some people.

Some people can literally become addicted to this stuff and completely lose control over their consumption.

Although food addiction is something that most people don’t know about, I am personally convinced that it is a huge problem in society today.

It is the main reason why some people just can’t stop eating these foods, no matter how hard they try.

They’ve had their brain biochemistry hijacked by the intense dopamine release that occurs in the brain when they eat these foods.

This is actually supported by many studies. Sugar and highly rewarding junk foods activate the same areas in the brain as drugs of abuse like cocaine.

Bottom Line: For many people, junk foods can hijack the biochemistry of the brain, leading to downright addiction and cause them to lose control over their consumption.

5. Processed Foods Are Often High in Refined Carbohydrates

There is a lot of controversy regarding carbohydrates in the diet.

Some people think that the majority of our energy intake should be from carbs, while others think they should be avoided like the plague.

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But one thing that almost everyone agrees on, is that carbohydrates from whole foods are much better than refined carbohydrates.

Processed foods are often high in carbs, but it is usually the refined variety.

One of the main problems is that refined, “simple” carbohydrates are quickly broken down in the digestive tract, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels.

This can lead to carb cravings a few hours later when blood sugar levels go down again. This phenomenon is also called the “blood sugar roller coaster”—which many people who have been on a high-carb diet can relate to.

Not surprisingly, eating a lot of refined carbohydrates is associated with negative health effects and many chronic diseases.

Do NOT be fooled by labels like “whole grains” that are often plastered on processed food packages, including breakfast cereals.

These are usually whole grains that have been pulverized into very fine flour and are just as harmful as their refined counterparts.

If you’re going to eat carbs, get them from whole, single ingredient foods, not processed junk foods.

Bottom Line: The carbohydrates you find in processed foods are usually refined, “simple” carbohydrates. These lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels and cause negative health effects.

6. Most Processed Foods Are Low in Nutrients

Processed foods are extremely low in essential nutrients compared to whole, unprocessed foods.

In some cases, synthetic vitamins and minerals are added to the foods to compensate for what was lost during processing.

However, synthetic nutrients are NOT a good replacement for the nutrients found in whole foods.

Also, let’s not forget that real foods contain much more than just the standard vitamins and minerals that we’re all familiar with.

Real foods … like plants and animals, contain thousands of other trace nutrients that science is just beginning to grasp.

Maybe one day we will invent a chemical blend that can replace all these nutrients, but until that happens … the only way to get them in your diet is to eat whole, unprocessed foods.

The more you eat of processed foods, the less you will get of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and various trace nutrients.

Bottom Line: There are many nutrients found in whole foods that are not found in processed foods. The more processed foods you eat, the less you will get of these nutrients.

7. Processed Foods Tend to be Low in Fiber

Fiber, especially soluble, fermentable fiber, has various benefits.

One of the main ones is that it functions as a prebiotic, feeding the friendly bacteria in the intestine.

There is also evidence that fiber can slow down the absorption of carbohydrates and help us feel more satisfied with fewer calories.

Soluble fiber can also help treat many cases of constipation, which is a very common problem today.

The fiber that is found naturally in foods is often lost during processing, or intentionally removed. Therefore, most processed foods are very low in fiber.

Bottom Line: Soluble, fermentable fiber has various important health benefits, but most processed foods are very low in fiber because it is lost or intentionally removed during processing.

8. It Requires Less Energy and Time to Digest Processed Foods

Food manufacturers want their processed food products to have a long shelf life.

They also want each batch of the product to have a similar consistency and they want their foods to be easily consumed.

Given the way foods are processed, they are often very easy to chew and swallow. Sometimes, it’s almost as if they melt in your mouth.

Most of the fiber has been taken out and the ingredients are refined, isolated nutrients that don’t resemble the whole foods they came from.

One consequence of this is that it takes less energy to eat and digest processed foods.

We can eat more of them in a shorter amount of time (more calories in) and we also burn less energy (fewer calories out) digesting them than we would if they were unprocessed, whole foods.

One study in 17 healthy men and women compared the difference in energy expenditure after consuming a processed vs a whole foods-based meal.

They ate a sandwich, either with multi-grain bread and cheddar cheese (whole foods) or with white bread and processed cheese (processed foods).

It turned out that they burned twice as many calories digesting the unprocessed meal.

The Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) is a measure of how much different foods stimulate energy expenditure after eating. It totals about 10 percentof total energy expenditure (metabolic rate) in the average person.

According to this study, people who eat processed food will cut their TEF in half, effectively reducing the amount of calories they burn throughout the day.

Bottom Line: We only burn half as many calories digesting and metabolizing processed foods compared to whole foods.

9. Processed Foods Are Often High in Trans Fats or Processed Vegetable Oils

Processed foods are often high in unhealthy fats.

They usually contain cheap fats, refined seed- and vegetable oils (like soybean oil) that are often hydrogenated … which turns them into trans fats.

Vegetable oils are extremely unhealthy and most people are eating way too much of them already.

These fats contain excessive amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids, which can drive oxidation and inflammation in the body.

Several studies show that when people eat more of these oils, they have a significantly increased risk of heart disease, which is the most common cause of death in Western countries today.

If the fats are hydrogenated, that makes them even worse. Hydrogenated (trans) fats are among the nastiest, unhealthiest substances you can put into your body.

The best way to avoid seed oils and trans fats is to avoid processed foods. Eat real fats like butter, coconut oil and olive oil instead.

Just Eat Real Food!

When we replace real, traditional foods like butter, meat and vegetables with crappy, processed junk foods, we get fat and sick.

Real food is the key to good health, processed food is not. Period.

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A new report by Greenpeace International pinpointed the world's worst sources of sulfur dioxide pollution, an irritant gas that harms human health. India has seized the top spot from Russia and China, contributing nearly 15 percent of global sulfur dioxide emissions.

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The huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about LeoFFreitas / Moment / Getty Images

By Sue Branford and Thais Borges

Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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