How Much Processed Food is Healthy?

I got an email from a reader who runs a vegetarian organization saying that he has been receiving a lot of questions about processed foods. He passed on the questions to me and asked me to write an article. Here are the questions:

1. The main questions/statements I’ve been getting are largely of the “all processed foods are poison” and “are vegan processed foods similar to processed meats?” I doubt that vegan meats contain nitrites, for example, but i do wonder if you know of any connections between vegan meats and bowel cancer.

Nitrites are used to cure meats in order to reduce bacteria growth, but are not used to cure vegan meats. Another concern with meats are the heterocyclic amines formed especially in burned meat. These are not found in vegan meats.

2. “What about all of the salt in tofurky?” and the like?

The amount of sodium in processed foods is something that you should pay attention to.

Recently, there has been a big controversy over how much sodium people should aim for. You can read a concise summary of the controversy in The New Salt Controversy from the Harvard School of Public Health. A summary of the article is that there is good evidence that all Americans should aim for a daily sodium intake of no more than 2,300 mg. Additionally, people with elevated blood pressure should aim for a sodium intake of 1,500 mg, and this might even be a good idea for almost everyone.

If you have blood pressure on the lower end of normal, then it’s not so necessary to aim for 1,500 mg and, in fact, the Mayo Clinic recommends that people with hyoptension actually eat more sodium (see Low blood pressure: Treatments and Drugs).

One thing to be aware of when reading about sodium is the difference between salt and sodium. Salt is sodium chloride and 10,000 mg of salt equals 4,000 mg of sodium.

High sodium intakes can also contribute to calcium loss from the bones, kidney stones, and possibly stomach cancer. You can read more details in the Linus Pauling Institute’s article Sodium. My sense from the article is that sodium intakes as low as 2,300 mg per day probably do not contribute to these diseases. The article also points out that a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and legumes may help counteract the effects of a high sodium intake on blood pressure.

So what does this mean for vegans? One, you should regularly get your blood pressure tested. Two, unless it is so low that you don’t feel a need to limit sodium intake (and I cannot answer this question for any given individual, you would need to talk to your physician), aiming for as low as 2,300 mg/day is important. If you are at risk for, or have, high blood pressure, limit sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day.

Sodium is mostly found in processed foods. If you do not add salt to whole plant foods, they will contribute almost no sodium. Carrot juice is one exception and there might be some others. In fact, a completely whole foods vegan diet might not meet the DRI for sodium of 1,500 mg for people 9 to 50 years old (see Sodium for the DRI for other age groups).

For a vegan to figure sodium intake, they only need to worry about the processed foods or added table salt (a teaspoon of table salt contains 2,325 mg of sodium).

Here might be a typical day of high-sodium foods for me:

1 cup soy milk – 95 mg
1 serving Tofurky – 320 mg
2 slices bread – 360 mg
1 Trader Joe’s chocolate chip cookie – 65 mg
1/2 serving sesame sticks – 175 mg
2 cups popcorn – 100 mg
1/2 cup carrot juice – 90 mg
1 1/2 T salad dressing – 213 mg
Dessert – 100 mg
Other – 500 mg

Total 2,018 mg

On this regimen, I have kept my blood pressure on the lower side of normal, though I should also point out that during the warmer months I exercise in the heat and sweat out a lot of sodium.

As you can see, I don’t particularly shy away from processed foods. Of course, I do eat fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and beans in addition to these foods.

3. “Why are so many people opposed to artificial meats?”

Let me count the ways.

Probably the most common objection is because many of them contain isolated soy protein. As the Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and that isolated soy protein is hazardous to your health.”

Joking aside, many people think that isolated soy protein is harmful. I have not seen the evidence for this, but I can understand why someone might want to approach it as “guilty until proven innocent.” If you are such a person, Tofurky does not use isolated soy protein in their meats. And Field Roast does not use any soy at all – they use gluten, which doesn’t sit much better with the whole-foods-only crowd!

Another objection is that people consider processed foods to be devoid of nutrients. You shouldn’t rely on only processed foods for all your nutrition, but even isolated soy protein isn’t completely devoid of nutrients (click here for nutrient breakdown).

Finally, some people think that it’s hypocritical for vegetarians to want to eat something that has the taste and texture of meat. These people are clueless as to why most people become vegetarian.

4. “What processed foods should I limit my consumption of?”

You can overdo any processed food, or any unprocessed food, for that matter. It really depends on your overall diet and how many total calories you’re eating.

If I have to pick foods to limit, I would suggest limiting fried foods to a couple servings per day and then watching your sodium intake as described above. Ten servings of soy per day is probably pushing the limits of wise dietary practices. Don’t cook with oils that are high in omega-6 fats; if you cook with oil then olive is probably the best. Too much refined sugar isn’t a good idea, though I don’t know what “too much” would be for any given individual. Dried fruit can cause cavities so I’d limit to a couple servings a day.

The End

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27 Responses to “How Much Processed Food is Healthy?”

  1. Jeannie Says:

    As a long-time vegan advocate, I thank you SO much for this clear-sighted summary.

  2. Meghan K Says:

    Thank you for dispelling some myths about processed meat-substitutes.

    Regarding isolated soy protein, I find it very hard to digest. I find that fermented soyfoods like miso and tempeh do not cause GI distress, but almost all others do. I wonder if this could be part of the objection for some people?

    Re: Field Roast Frankenfurters, omg. so good

  3. Diane J. Says:

    Thank you, great info on soy prot iso. And that Tofurkey does not use. Real information and putting this whole “processed food” thing into perspective is so helpful. And, when appropriate, please more on “better brands”. Thanks

  4. Dan Says:

    Regarding Tofurkey sausages, I calculated just yesterday that the total linoleic acid content cannot be more than 1.5 g per kielbasa sausage. That is trivial. By way of showing perspective, I am consuming in excess of 47 grams of LA per day. I therefore retract my previous statement concerning LA & Tofurkey sausages. (In my diet, brazil nuts, avocados and tahini have far more LA in them than the 1-2 tofurkey sausages I eat each day).

    Since going on a low carb (now low carb vegan) diet, my BP has dropped from the 130-140/90 range to less than 110/70. This makes sense as serum insulin causes renal tubular reabsorption of salt and water; in addition, each glucose molecule in the blood requires 190 water molecules for dissolution. So I have actually had to supplement my diet with salt to avoid postural hypotension and lightheadedness. Previously I was pre-hypertensive. On occasion, my BP would be as high as 150/80, particularly when measured in a public place like a pharmacy (“white coat effect”). What salt I eat is generally added to salad and in the form of tofurkey sausage and lupin beans. The recent Institute of Medicine report suggested there was no reason to limit salt to 2300 mg per day.

    Regarding “Too much refined sugar isn’t a good idea, though I don’t know what “too much” would be for any given individual.” A friend send me a very interesting article the other day, which you may want to read:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-mark-hyman/sugar-addiction_b_3502807.html?utm_source=Alert-blogger&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Email%2BNotifications

    It is based on the following article:

    http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/early/2013/06/26/ajcn.113.064113.abstract

    By the way, you mention cooking with olive oil – one could also use canola oil, which is very low in LA (especially high-oleic acid canola oil, which is great for high heats – up to 465 F – without degradation into toxic byproducts).

    Sorry for the long post.

  5. Amanda Says:

    Whoa! Two things surprised me here. First, I thought I read an article that said there’s never been any research to show that any level of sodium intake contributes to diseases in people with normal blood pressure. I’m 22, very active, low normal blood pressure, and haven’t been worried about sodium at all. Should I? (Also I wasn’t worried because when I read packages for most foods I eat like canned beans it would always say like 5% of the sodium limit per serving so I figured it would be unlikely for me to exceed it.)

    Also, I have been avoiding isolated soy protein for the longest time and it can be pretty inconvenient. I never avoid things that are only speculated to be harmful, really, but I was under the impression this one was scientific. Have there not been studies at all or are they proving it’s fine? Also, is the harmfulness of tvp proven or is it the same deal?

  6. Paul Says:

    While I am not aware of any data demonstrating a link between cancer and vegan meats, Dr. McDougall did point to some research that indicates that isolated soy protein at the 40 gram per day level is a powerful stimulator of IGF-1 hormone that is linked to cancer. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mHYFOJBU434

    Ginny Messina has pointed out that 40 grams is far more than what you would get in a standard serving of vegan meat. She indicated that moderation was the key. Also, many vegan meats use not soy protein exclusively but also seitan or wheat protein.

  7. Dan Says:

    A few people are remarkably salt-sensitive and their blood pressure elevates in the face of acute and chronic salt intake; not good. This is known as salt-sensitive or low-renin hypertension. This is especially common in black people from the southeast USA, due to genetic ancestry from the slave ship survivors. But some caucasians have it too. The rest of the population are not salt sensitive and we simply renally excrete any excess salt load that our body ingests. This is why dietary recommendations across the board fail on a level of personalized health and individuals. They treat all of us as ‘nails’ when some of us are ‘screws’. You don’t use a hammer for a screw, do you?

    BP is one of the easiest variables to measure and does not require going to a physician to do so. In fact, you need not even purchase a BP cuff; just use a pharmacy or grocery store with a machine and check it on a regular basis. Proper measurement technique is vital. Ensure you are seated at rest for 5 minutes before checking your BP. Check three times, spaced at 2 minute intervals; discard the first two readings. Ensure your feet are flat on the floor and your legs are uncrossed; back should be supported. Do not talk or listen to another person during the reading. Ensure you have not just ingested coffee, alcohol, nicotine or a large meal. Get a feel for your BP readings over time – single numbers are not as helpful as long-term trends and averages, due to variability in measurement and physiology.

    If your BP is elevated, one of the ways to lower it is simply to cut sugar and starch from your diet. As mentioned, insulin is a potent stimulator of renal tubular Na+/H20 reabsorption, and insulin is stimulated by dietary carbohydrate burden (not complex carbs but simple ones). I would do that first before reducing salt in the diet.

  8. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Amanda,

    Many short terms studies on soy have used soy protein isolate and have not found any harmful effects. Because so little soy protein isolate is consumed in the population, we do not have any long term studies. However, I would suspect that Seventh-day Adventist vegtarians have consumed a decent amount and, if so, it doesn’t appear to have increased their risk of disease more than the non-vegetarian SDAs. TVP is the same deal.

    > Should I?

    My article was an attempt to answer that question.

  9. Dan Says:

    Jack & Paul

    >Many short terms studies on soy have used soy protein isolate and have not found any harmful effects. Because so little soy protein isolate is consumed in the population, we do not have any long term studies.

    >While I am not aware of any data demonstrating a link between cancer and vegan meats, Dr. McDougall did point to some research that indicates that isolated soy protein at the 40 gram per day level is a powerful stimulator of IGF-1 hormone that is linked to cancer.

    While I am not overly fond of ecological comparisons, if you look at the Chinese population as a whole, they have much lower rates of many common malignancies than even new immigrant Chinese to North America. Yet they consume far more soy than we do – it’s a staple there. One would expect that with the high rates of tobacco consumption, environmental pollution, rural poverty/malnutrition and tuberculosis in China that malignancies would at least equal the West, but this is not the case — rates are far lower. I am not saying that soy is a protective factor but this ecological comparison at least suggests it is not a culprit in the development of many malignancies.

  10. Andreas Says:

    —–Jack,

    Is that canned or freshly squeezed carrot juice?

    —–Dan,

    The role of potassium in postural hypotension.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7714460

    http://www.drpasswater.com/nutrition_library/Potassium%20_to%20_Sodium_Ratio.html

    The type of salt also matters. Refined salt with only sodium chloride and lacking other minerals leads to health problems.

    If you are worried about bananas having too much potassium, it isn’t the potassium. Banana’s contain norepinephrine, it increases blood pressure, which can be letal in excess in those with atherosclerosis.
    http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/21/6/892
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norepinephrine

    “By the way, you mention cooking with olive oil – one could also use canola oil, which is very low in LA (especially high-oleic acid canola oil, which is great for high heats – up to 465 F – without degradation into toxic byproducts).”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hexane#Uses
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hexane-2,5-dione

    My Italian parents taught me to choose extra virgin olive oil, close to gold/light greenish in color with very little or no acidic smell and no debris on the bottom of the bottle. Or to buy cold pressed oil.

    “While I am not overly fond of ecological comparisons, if you look at the Chinese population as a whole, they have much lower rates of many common malignancies than even new immigrant Chinese to North America. Yet they consume far more soy than we do – it’s a staple there.”

    However they don’t consume processed soy, which is much lower in isoflavones compared to the homemade chinese tofu. Most chinese people have bacteria in their gut which convert the isoflavones in soy to beneficial equol and S-equol isoflavones.

  11. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Andreas,

    It is freshly squeezed Trader Joe’s carrot juice with no salt added. But, I see that the USDA only has one entry for carrot juice and it is for canned. It does not appear that Trader Joe’s gets the info for their label from the USDA because the numbers don’t jive.

    I now see that carrots do contain some sodium with one medium carrot having 42 mg:

    http://peacounter.com/foods_pub.php?ndb=11124

    Given that, I’m somewhat surprised carrot juice doesn’t contain more sodium. I wonder if this is true of all root vegetables…

    Doesn’t seem to be true about potatoes:

    http://peacounter.com/foods_pub.php?ndb=11363

  12. Dan Says:

    I would be more concerned about the 16 g of non-fibre carbohydrates in a one-cup serving (8 oz) of Trader Joe’s carrot juice – http://www.fatsecret.com/calories-nutrition/trader-joes/100%25-organic-carrot-juice

    Given that a glass would be about 12 oz, that is an ingestion of 24 g of non-fibre carbohydrates – a very large free carb burden in a very rapidly consumed portion.

    Since finding out my diet lacks vitamin A, I’ve started eating two carrots per day with lunch – the carb burden is much lower, and the fibre content much higher. I eat it with the dirt on, to ensure I am adequately stocking my intestines with probiotics and soil microbials (just kidding!).

    I realize not everyone is concerned about glycemic index and total dietary acellular carbohydrate burden, but this article was very eye-opening for me (a colleague passed it along):

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22826636

  13. dimqua Says:

    There are meat substitutes made from defatted soy flour and they are more nutritious than those that are made from isolated soy protein (see http://peacounter.com/foods_pub.php?ndb=16117). Though I’m not sure that they are they are sold in the United States.

  14. Dan Says:

    Andreas, the hexane thing was an eye-opener to me – I did not realize that most soy manufacturers use a neurotoxin in their extraction process. I found a website that lists the safe varieties:

    http://www.cornucopia.org/2009/05/soy-report-and-scorecard/#more-1375

    As to the above comment, why would one want to defat soy product? To eliminate linoleic acid?

    Does anyone consume Celtic salt or himalaya pink?

  15. Paul Says:

    Most of the soy the Chinese eat are either fermented, or minimally processed. The protein in these foods is not as concentrated as it is in isolated soy protein, hence its potential to raise IGF is not the same as isolated soy protein. Even so, moderation seems warranted of soy products, even minimally processed ones.

  16. Joe Says:

    Jack,

    Besides added sodium, I thought that a serious concern with many mock meats is that they usually have a significant amount of added oil. I know you might not necessarily advocate a low-fat vegan diet, but even so, I thought it was fairly well-established that most oils are harmful to health and weight management — except maybe olive oil, and I don’t think that olive oil is typically used in processed foods. Often these foods use canola oil, soy oil, or other oils that don’t seem to have redeeming nutritional qualities to justify their fat content. In fact, besides the issue with sodium, this is a big reason I’ve started to avoid mock meats, since it is difficult to find any without a significant amount of added oil (or sodium).

    Any comments?

  17. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Joe,

    For people whose cholesterol levels and body weight are under control, I would not consider the added fats to be something to worry about. There is research to indicate that fat and protein increase satiety and can lead to eating less calories. See this post:

    http://jacknorrisrd.com/of-oil-and-ethics/

  18. Dan Says:

    Joe,

    Sol Cuisine makes a spicy black bean burger with only 0.2 g of saturated fat in it, coming from sunflower oil. That is a processed food item / meat substitute which is very low in fat.

    I think we also need to distinguish between bad fats (saturated fats, trans fats) and good fats (polyunsaturated fats and especially omega-3 fatty acids like ALA). There is a recent Cochrane meta-analysis that shows that modifying and replacing saturated fat with other types of foods reduces the risk of cardiovascular events by 14% (not a large reduction, but it is based on clinical trials rather than observational studies).

    The notion that all oil or all fat is bad is likely outdated.

    I would tend to avoid industrial seed oils other than canola or olive oil, and cook/fry only with high-oleic acid sunflower oil, because its constituent omega-3 polyunsaturates are so scant which would otherwise lead to oxidized species on heating.

    On a personal level, I do not think I could consume a vegetarian diet without some fat in it – it would be very difficult for me to adhere to. I find plant-based fats intrinsically satiating (e.g. avocados, nuts, nut butters), and I can go up to 8 hours between meals without any snacking or hunger. This has also considerably improved my lipid profile.

  19. dimqua Says:

    Jack,

    As I understand, main concern about vegetable oil caused by the fact that it is low nutrient density food.

  20. Jack Norris RD Says:

    dimqua,

    As I understand it, the main concerns about vegetable oil are that it is a calorically dense food which could lead to gaining weight and, as you say, that it is a low nutrient food (or, more accurately, a low vitamin/mineral/antioxidant food, given that fat is technically a nutrient).

    Unless someone is on a very low calorie diet, a bit of food with low nutrient density probably won’t do much harm, especially if you supplement for any marginal nutrients in your diet. But if, for example, your zinc status is low and you eat some oil instead of a higher zinc food, on a daily basis, it could push your zinc status lower.

  21. dimqua Says:

    > … it is a calorically dense food which could lead to gaining weight …

    Not all people are worried about the number of calories they eat per day. I, for example, try to eat more calories to gain weight. What is a problem for one person is not necessarily a problem for another. ;)

  22. Dan Says:

    Fat feeding studies do not demonstrate major weight gain; in fact, quite the opposite, especially if fat or protein is replacing carbohydrate in the diet. Masai tribesman in Kenya consume a diet rich in cow blood, whole fat cow milk and cow meat, yet are remarkably thinner than their peers who move to urban environments and consume a standard western diet. Masai diet is about two thirds fat by energy consumed, which is remarkably high. Fat does not increase insulin levels the way that carbs do.

    http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.ca/2008/06/what-to-do-if-your-study-contradicts.html

  23. Jack Norris RD Says:

    > Fat feeding studies do not demonstrate major weight gain; in fact, quite the opposite, especially if fat or protein is replacing carbohydrate in the diet.

    ad libitum studies would be most useful for this discussion because outside of a clinical trial, there is no guarantee that the fat calories will replace carbohydrate. It might be the case that they will, and I think in many cases they will, but for many people they might not.

  24. Joe Says:

    Interestingly, I’ve felt much more satiated (actually kind of stuffed) by whole-foods meals entirely of starchy and non-starchy vegetables, than I have after eating the exact same meal with some nuts. I’ve only recently switched to a whole-foods pattern of eating so maybe it’s just something like “beginner’s luck” but I have to say it’s been a wonderful shift so far from generally feeling unsatisfied by meals with processed fats.

  25. Dan Says:

    Jack, I agree with that. However, in practical terms, most people do not drink vegetable oil. At most they fry with it or dress their vegetables with it. The vast majority would consume a couple teaspoons or at most tablespoons per day. While vegetable oils like any oils are calorically rich, they are not consumed in sufficient quantities to make much of an impact even if consumed ad libitum. And since fat is intrinsically more satiating than carbohydrate and does not drive insulin-mediated fat storage, I doubt vegetable oil causes weight gain, even on top of other macronutrients in the diet. I would need to see data proving the converse and I have never come across such a study.

  26. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Joe,

    The common thought is that if you start out a meal eating fat at the beginning, it slows the movement of food through your stomach and makes you feel full sooner. It may not work for everyone!

    I’m not sure that nuts would count, though. As we’ve discussed (or debated) a lot on this site, there fiber in nuts may bind the fat and prevent absorption. This may not have any effect on the fat in nuts ability to slow the movement of food through your stomach, but I wouldn’t rule it out. You might need a more concentrated fat for this to work. I’m going to be lazy and not look to see if there is any research on this.

  27. Dan Says:

    Re: soy sausages (e.g. Tofurkey brand) and other processed foods – I went back to re-read this excellent blog column, which largely focused on the sodium content.

    All other things being equal, is it better to eat something like a Tofurkey sausage, or, rather, the same quantity of soybeans? With the latter, you are not getting any additives like sugar (‘organic evaporated cane juice’), added sodium, added omega-6 rich seed oils (in this case high-oleic safflower or canola oil), processed grain or preservatives. However, Tofurkey deliberately supplements their sausages with a lot of micronutrients, which may be missing in simple soybeans. That is, they add dipotassium phosphate, niacin, iron, zinc oxide, vitamin B12, calcium, pantothenate, vitamin B6, and riboflavin.

    Speaking personally, I got rid of the Tofurkey sausage and now just add the same quantity of soybeans to salad and soups. I use both green and black soybeans. Over the long run, the major difference will probably be in the sodium content – these tofurkey sausages are loaded with salt.

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