Processed foods

Based on the provisions of the regulations in force, processed foods are:

“food products obtained from the processing of unprocessed products. These products may contain ingredients necessary for their processing or to give them specific characteristics”. In this case, by ingredients we mean additives, dyes etc. and some substances capable of giving particular characteristics to the product (e.g. fruit, spices, herbs, etc.)

Unprocessed foods, on the other hand, are all those foodstuffs that do not consist of more than one ingredient and that, moreover, have not undergone a significant transformation before being offered for sale. Also in this case we report the definition provided by the European regulations:

“Unprocessed foods are food products that have not undergone processing, including products that have been separated, sectioned, divided, sliced, boned, minced, skinned, crushed, chopped, cleaned, trimmed, hulled, ground, refrigerated , frozen , deep- frozen or thawed ”

According to these definitions, the vast majority of foodstuffs fall into the category of processed foods. Except for fruit and vegetables, eggs and a few other products that are marketed without having suffered any type of work, many foods in common use such as pasta, the ‘ olive oil , vegetable preserves and cereal for breakfast are reality of processed foods.

This term should therefore not scare the consumer but stimulate him to deepen his knowledge on food processing methods. Some typical products such as bread , wine , vinegar , cocoa , yogurt or cheese, even if homemade with the utmost care in the choice of ingredients, are however the result of a natural food transformation mediated by molds , yeasts and bacteria .

However, nature is not always so generous and, in the vast majority of cases, natural transformations alter the quality of food to the point of causing, in extreme cases,infections or food poisoning . Also for this reason, man has always selected the best techniques to make food safer, more palatable and can be stored for longer. Until a few decades ago, these techniques were mostly of natural origin, such as salting, preservation in oil , in vinegar or the smoking of meat .

With the advent of industrialization and the radical change in the lifestyle of the population, new substances have been introduced which, added to foods, improve their characteristics and shelf life. These are the so-called ” chemical additives “, substances which, despite the rigorous controls on their safety, frighten and alarm consumers.

In reality, the category of food processing of artificial origin is much broader and includes many techniques, some harmless and beneficial and others not entirely free of side effects.

In general, the “artificial” transformation must however be considered a positive factor, capable of increasing storage times and preserving the characteristics of the product for a long time. Think for example of frozen vegetables, whose content in nutrients ( vitamins and minerals ) remains practically unchanged even after months.

Other times the food is processed to improve its organoleptic characteristics and make them more palatable to the consumer. And it is in some of these cases that processed foods can become enemies of our health. Let’s think, for example, of the large addition of salt to many packaged foods (snacks, sausages , baked goods, etc.), to that of sugars in confectionery and drinks ( sucrose , glucose syrup, fructose syrup , etc.) or to that of low-quality oils, margarines and fats ( tropical oils and fats , margarine, etc.) ).

It is also necessary to consider all those potential harmful effects that, according to some studies, certain chemical additives would have. Unfortunately it is not easy to find your way around hundreds of different substances, some of which are banned in certain countries and licensed in others. The possible interaction between the various additives and the potential long-term effects linked to their chronic intake should also be considered.

Despite the rigorous controls on the subject, we are bombarded every day by these substances which, while on the one hand offer a whole series of advantages to the consumer, on the other hand bring significant economic benefits to those who market the foods that contain them. In fact, chemical additives are often used as they are less expensive than natural ones and capable of significantly improving the organoleptic qualities of a poor product.

Below is a short list of chemical additives to be used in moderation, based on the findings of several studies that testify to their danger:


Erythrosine (E127) dye widely used in the confectionery industry to give the food a reddish color. Banned in some countries, it appears to interfere with thyroid activity
Benzoic acid and derivatives (from E210 to E219) contained in preserved fruit and alcoholic beverages; due to their potential toxic effect they are prohibited in some countries
Sulfur dioxide derivatives (E220 to E228) used mainly in beverages, especially alcoholic ones, in high doses or in hypersensitive subjects they have a toxic effect, are irritating and can cause severe headaches
Hexamethylenetetramine (E239) used in some cheeses , it causes gastrointestinal problems
E249 E250 or Nitrites contained above all in cured meats and preserved meats (but not only) have a potential carcinogenic effect
Derivatives of phosphoric acid (from E338 to E343) they are used as acidity correctors but subtract calcium from the body and can favor the onset of osteoporosis
Polyphosphates (E452) contained in meats and cheeses, they remove calcium from the body and can favor the onset of osteoporosis
Sodium glutamate ( E621 ) contained in many sausages, condiments and stock cubes (it is a flavor enhancer ). The monosodium glutamate contains about one third of the sodium present in the salt from the table and is used in minor amounts. In any case, those who follow a low-sodium diet should reduce the consumption of processed foods that contain it. The hypotheses about its toxicity that arose in the past have never been confirmed.

Unfortunately, on the subject of ” chemical additives ” there is a lot of confusion generated by incorrect information that exploits the fears of the consumer. However, if we examine the previous table, we realize that the foods with the highest risk (cheeses, preserved meats, sweets, sugary drinks and alcohol) are precisely those that should be moderate regardless of the presence or absence of chemical additives. Only a healthy and balanced diet can therefore provide us with all the substances we need while protecting us from harmful ones.


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