Health Risks of Processed Foods: Some Unknown Facts


Medically reviewed by

Dr. Maithili Rathod


4 min read

Key Takeaways

  • Foods altered to increase flavor and shelf life are called processed foods
  • Consumption of processed meats like bacon may cause colorectal cancer
  • Excess sugar in processed foods can lead to obesity due to binge eating

Be it potato chips or that glass of coke you enjoy at any time of day or night, you may not know that what you love snacking on is actually processed food. Any food item that is altered in some way or other falls under the category of processed foods. Usually, these are foods that have been altered to increase their shelf life or their flavor but also cause various health risks of processed foods.

With food technology becoming a booming industry and people looking for convenient options for meals, processed foods seem to be a part and parcel of the modern lifestyle. Processed foods can be classified into minimally processed, heavily processed, or ultra-processed foods. The former can be considered healthy and includes washed, peeled, and cut veggies and fruits. When multiple ingredients are added to enhance the flavor, stability, and texture of a food product, you can call it heavily or ultra-processed.

Junk Foods | Bajaj Finserv health

As per a study, Indians get more calories from processed foods than fruits, which is a warning sign we all need to heed, especially since experts predict huge growth in the country’s processed food market. Here we have brought to you some unknown facts associated with the health risks of processed foods.

What is the meaning of processed food?

A lot of foods are processed to different degrees. For instance, manufacturers put dry beans through a process to make them shelf-stable. Researchers have categorized foods into four groups based on the degree of processing to make it easier to comprehend food processing. They achieved this by utilising NOVA, a system for categorizing foods created by scientists at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. [1]

NOVA Group 1: Foods with little or no processing. This group includes fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, and vegetables. Some items may have undergone roasting, boiling, or pasteurisation to extend their shelf life or make them safe to eatNOVA Group 2: Prepared foods derived from group 1 foods or from the natural world. Foods like salt, maple syrup, and olive oil fall under this category. The majority of Group 1 meal preparation and cooking uses Group 2 foodsNOVA Group 3: Processed foods, which include products manufactured by adding salt, sugar, or other additives from Group 2 foods to Group 1 foods. Examples include cheese, fresh bread, and fruit covered in syrup

NOVA group 4: Ultra-processed food. Almost none of the foods or ingredients from Group 1 are present in these. These products are frequently heavy in sugars, refined grains, fats, preservatives, and salt and are designed to be convenient, highly appealing, and inexpensive. Foods that have been ultra- or highly processed frequently include ingredients that you wouldn't use to prepare meals at home, like:

  • Processed proteins
  • Altered starches
  • Hybridised oils
  • Colourants 
  • Flavourings
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Synthetic sweeteners
  • Expanding agents

These classifications for foods aren't flawless or entirely precise, and experts acknowledge that there is a lot of variation in how items are labelled as "highly processed" in research studies. 

Healthy and Delicious Alternatives of Popular Processed Foods

Flavoured and coated nuts

Why Avoid:

If you consistently eat more than a handful of these flavour-infused nuts, your heart health may eventually suffer due to the excess sugar and salt they contain.


Eat them raw, roasted, or toasted. When you have control over the components, there is far less chance that extra salt, sugar, and fat will be added. Avoid the shelf of flavoured nuts. Instead, try natural nuts that are still packed with protein and healthy fats.

Breakfast cereals and Cereal Bars

Why Avoid:

Many common granola bars and cereals are packed with extra sugars that your body digests rapidly, so they don't do much to satisfy you. In addition, they frequently have lengthy ingredient lists, which is a huge indicator of highly processed foods. They primarily comprise simple carbohydrates rather than the healthy complex carbohydrates we want.


You should be able to tell which snacks are healthy by taking a quick look at the back of the packet. The healthy versions have a remarkably short list of ingredients and still have enough natural energy (mostly from dates and cashews) to last you through the day.

With some oats, nuts, dried fruit, granola, dates, etc., you may also prepare your own. So, you are completely aware of the ingredients in your mid-morning snack.

Instant Noodles

Why Avoid:

They contain enormous amounts of salt and sodium, are highly processed, have a high carbohydrate content, and provide little to no nutrition. As a result, they may raise the risk of obesity, high cholesterol, insulin resistance, and other cardiometabolic problems in otherwise healthy young adults.


If you can find some whole-wheat noodles you can flavour yourself, try switching to healthier "zoodles" or zucchini noodles.

Crisps and Savoury snacks

Why Avoid:

They no longer resemble the potatoes they once were and have absorbed much salt, oil, and occasionally sugar.


You can try baking your own crisps by thinly slicing some potatoes, seasoning them, and adding a little oil.

The traditional savoury snack can be replaced with beautiful, crunchy carrot and cucumber sticks. Consider dipping them in healthful peanut butter, like hummus

Canned fruits and vegetables

Why Avoid:

Many of these fruit snacks, especially the ones targeted towards children, are, granted, produced from actual fruit. However, because of how they were processed, the typically healthy natural sugar was changed into "free sugar."


Real fruit: Compared to these "fruit snacks," pure natural fruit deliciousness will always win out because it contains a lot more fibre, vitamins, and minerals, as well as a lot less sugar overall. For instance, an apple has roughly 10g of total sugar per 100g, whereas fruit snacks can have four times as much sugar per serving.

Bacon, sausage rolls, pies

Why Avoid:

Bacon, for example, has very high quantities of saturated fat and sodium. So before loading up your breakfast plate with bacon and sausages, it might be a good idea to consider the effects of sodium and saturated fat on conditions including high blood pressure and obesity.

Additionally, the preservatives frequently found in processed meats have been linked to everything from migraines to cardiovascular diseases, including heart disease. Bacon and other processed meat are actually categorised as Group 1 carcinogens by the World Health Organization (WHO) because they contain nitrates. This preservative causes the meat to turn red or pink. [2]


  1. Avocado: Avocados may easily substitute bacon in your sarnie because it has a rich and tasty flavour like bacon
  2. Eggs: Even while eggs also include saturated fat, they don't have the same amount as bacon; therefore, when it comes to breakfast, go for more eggs instead of bacon
  3. Carrot Bacon: Carrots may indeed be used to create bacon! Simple natural flavours like tahini, soy sauce, garlic powder, liquid smoke, black pepper, and paprika are all that is required. Overnight, marinate thinly sliced carrots with the spices and oil, then bake them in the oven until they perfectly resemble fake bacon

Soft drinks

Why Avoid:

Cola's high sugar content turns into fat in the liver, which is one of the main reasons why drinking it is unhealthy for you. Several serious health issues might start with a fatty liver. A large increase in the fat around your abdomen and the organs can result from consuming a lot of fructose.


  • Sparkling water with a few fruit pieces or drops of juice
  • Lemonade
  • Coconut water

What are the health risks pertaining to processed foods?

While all processed foods cannot be termed unhealthy, ultra-processed ones definitely cause health hazards when eaten regularly. Here are some of the health risks of processed foods.

Risks of Eating Processed Foods | Bajaj Finserv Health

Increases the risk of colorectal cancer

Consumption of processed foods especially meat products may cause colorectal cancer. This cancer affects the rectum and large intestine and presents symptoms like abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, and irregular bowel movements. The main cause is the presence of artificial colors, emulsifiers, and additives in processed foods. Hence, you cannot nullify processed food's effect on health and its harmful consequences.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

IBD, or inflammatory bowel disease, is a condition that causes swelling and inflammation in the digestive tract. There are connections between the illness, immune system, and genes, even though the precise etiological causes are unknown. The typical signs include abrupt fever, exhaustion, unexpected weight loss, and blood in the faeces. 

Inflammatory bowel illness, popularly known as Crohn's disease or, technically, ulcerative colitis, has been linked in studies to processed meals. [3] Emulsifiers significantly contribute to the risk in this situation. Bread, peanut butter, cake mixes, salad dressings, sauces, curd, processed cheese, ice cream, and desserts are among the nearly endless list of processed food items. Surprisingly, the emulsifiers used in processed food are the same ones used in our laundry detergents and soaps.

Disturbs metabolic process of the body

Intake of processed foods regularly can affect the overall body metabolism. Certain risk factors such as high blood sugar levels, low HDL levels, high levels of triglycerides, and high blood pressure indicate that you may be suffering from metabolic syndrome. This happens due to the high consumption of carbs that get stored as fats in your body, thereby disturbing the body's metabolism.

Additional read: How to Reduce Cholesterol? 5 Lifestyle Changes to Make Right Now!Packeted Junk Foods | Bajaj Finserv Health

Leads to the development of ulcerative colitis

This is one of the other dangers of processed foods and is caused due to emulsifiers present in processed food products like peanut butter, sauces, salad dressings, bread, and processed cheese. Normally, emulsifiers are added to increase the shelf life and enhance the texture of a particular food. Consuming these chemical additives can result in inflammatory bowel disease or ulcerative colitis.

Causes obesity due to excessive sugar intake

Excessive consumption of sugar leads to obesity, which can further deteriorate your health. Ultra-processed food products are packed with sugar that does not add any nutritional value. Some of the common types of sugar seen in processed foods include glucose, fructose, malt, corn syrup, or molasses. Not only do such foods increase calories, but these may also force you to indulge in binge eating.

Anxiety and depression

Psychological issues are serious issues that affect people all around the world. According to studies, eating many wholesome foods lowers your risk of developing anxiety and depression. However, the sugar or sodium content in canned goods is high. Processed cheese, cured meats, pastries, candies, fried foods, and bottled beverages all contain a lot of salt and sugar, which can raise blood sugar levels or sodium levels, leading to diabetes or high blood pressure, respectively. It also raises blood pressure, releasing adrenalin into the system and inducing anxiety. 

A balanced diet is one of the greatest strategies to manage depression because it improves mood, protects general health, and helps with anxiety and depression.

Additional read: 7 Important Ways to Take Care of Your Mental Health

Autoimmune Conditions

When the body's immune cells assault the body's healthy cells, autoimmune disorders develop. Although there are many different autoimmune disorders, type 1 diabetes, lupus, disseminated sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Vitiligo, Crohn's disease, and Hashimoto's thyroiditis are the most prevalent ones. Genetics and numerous other epigenetic processes have a role in autoimmune illnesses, but studies have also shown a link to a high intake of processed foods. Additionally, processed foods reduce the intestine's capacity to defend itself against bacteria, poisons, chemicals, and other non-nutritional substances, increasing the risk of autoimmune illnesses. In addition to red meat, refined cereals, alcohol, and additives, autoimmune problems are also brought on by processed diets.

Affects the mental well-being

Regular consumption of processed foods can cause anxiety and depression. Added sugars present in these food products can affect your gut, a place where the gut bacteria produce serotonin hormone. Serotonin is a hormone known to stabilize your mood swings and chemical additives present in processed foods affect serotonin levels in your body.

Additional read: 7 Important Ways to Take Care of Your Mental Health

Contains artificial ingredients

Processed foods are loaded with artificial chemicals and preservatives which have negligible nutritional value. These chemical flavoring agents may cause serious health disorders if taken regularly. Some artificial ingredients may even aggravate ADHD issues in the younger generation.

Processed foods and health are interlinked, so keep a close watch on what you eat. You can take certain healthy measures to ensure you don’t binge on processed foods. This includes cooking more meals at home, choosing minimally processed meats, and checking the ingredient list of all processed foods you buy. If you suffer from any health risks of processed foods, make an appointment with a specialist on Bajaj Finserv Health. Book an online doctor consultation to connect to physicians from the comfort of your house and take proactive steps to ensure that you stay healthy and fit.

Can Processed Foods be Incorporated into a Healthy Diet?

It is feasible to consume some processed foods in a healthy way. All you need to do is become proficient at reading nutrition labels. For example, to select a product with less fat, salt, and sugar, you can compare and contrast it with other options by reading the back of a cereal packet, bread bag, or even a ready meal.

The development of the "traffic light" system, which you have probably previously seen, is one way this has become simpler over time. The red, amber, and green hues of the fat, sugar, and salt instantly indicate whether the food is nourishing or not. You can also use this colour system to assess your daily intake of junk food. Therefore, make healthier food selections by consuming fewer red foods and more greens and ambers.

Below are some adult daily guidelines to determine whether your food has high or low salt, sugar, fat, and saturated fat content.

Ways to mitigate processed food from the diet

After considering all the risks above and the impacts of eating processed meals, you may decide to eliminate all highly processed items from your diet, which will be difficult. Consequently, the following advice will help you start living a healthy lifestyle. 

Consume more homemade food

It is the most secure and conceivably ideal method of substituting processed meals. One can prepare meals tailored to their preferences using fresh vegetables and ingredients. That would also lessen the guilt associated with consuming many manufactured foods. 

Pick meats with the least processing

Avoid eating overly processed meat like sausage, and cured meats such as bacon. Instead, opt for minimally processed meats like shellfish or chicken breast.

Verify the Label

Reading labels is important, and everyone should be aware of this. However, it would be safe to avoid such foods if the majority of the components consist of the aforementioned difficult-to-pronounce ingredients rather than pure ingredients.

Enthusiasm and Willpower

Though urges and desires are common, how you handle them is more important. Reduce processed foods and weight loss by deciding not to eat fancy processed meals.


What are processed foods to avoid?

It is best to stay away from things like soda, packaged fried foods, instant noodles, fast food, white bread, processed meat, chocolates, candies, frozen foods, etc. Additionally, foods heavy in sodium, trans fat, saturated fat, and refined sugar should be avoided. 

These processed foods are regarded as harmful since they contain a lot of artificial additives or chemicals to improve flavour and flavour. You can identify the ingredients used to make a certain food product by reading the labels on the back of every package. As a result, it is simpler to steer clear of processed foods.

Which processed foods are healthy?

Although healthier alternatives include canned beans, dairy, almonds, soy products, packed salads, tinned fish, cereals, etc., no processed meal is completely healthy. They are considered safe or beneficial to health because they do not contain empty calories.

Are eggs processed food?

Eggs aren't thought of as processed food because they undergo minimal processing before reaching customers. But even if they undergo processing, it is modest such as the process of pasteurization. Processing is used in egg-based products. 

Is rice processed food?

White rice is a processed grain. Because the bran, germ, and husk are removed, it turns white. As a result, processing causes it to lose much of its nutritional value, yet it is still healthy. 

Which type of food is not good for health?

Any food that has been altered in terms of appearance or texture using chemicals or chemical procedures is bad for your health. Fast food, prepared meals, processed foods, junk food, sugary drinks, high-sodium foods, beverages, and candy are all unhealthy. Therefore, carefully research the items you intend to eat.

Is yoghurt processed food?

Yoghurt is a processed food as it is packaged and cultured. It also has a beautiful texture because of chemicals. Flavoured yoghurt, on the other hand, contains sugar and artificial flavours. However, it is nutritious because it belongs to the probiotics family and is packed with good bacteria.  

Is canned tuna healthy?

Comparatively speaking, canned tuna is healthier than other foods. It contains a lot of high-quality protein. It contains plenty of iron, potassium, selenium, iodine, vitamin B6, and vitamin D. In general, tuna fish has a lot of nutrients, but for ease of access and transportation, some products must be in cans.

Is peanut butter processed food?

Yes, store-bought peanut butter's various oils and other ingredients go through processing. Ground peanuts and naturally occurring peanut oil are the main ingredients in organic peanut butter. Although it has a shorter shelf life than the standard ones, it is healthier. Compared to store-bought varieties, homemade peanut butter is far more nutrient-dense.

Published on 16 Aug 2021Last updated on 13 Apr 2023

Please note that this article is solely meant for informational purposes and Bajaj Finserv Health Limited (“BFHL”) does not shoulder any responsibility of the views/advice/information expressed/given by the writer/reviewer/originator. This article should not be considered as a substitute for any medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always consult with your trusted physician/qualified healthcare professional to evaluate your medical condition. The above article has been reviewed by a qualified doctor and BFHL is not responsible for any damages for any information or services provided by any third party.


Health Videos

Mobile Frame
Download our app

Download the Bajaj Health App

Stay Up-to-date with Health Trends. Read latest blogs on health and wellness. Know More!

Get the link to download the app

Google PlayApp store