Processed foods contain potentially dangerous ingredients, pathogens


Anna Wright

Many of the fast foods RBHS  students eat contain pathogens that can potentially be harmful to the body.  Photo by Mikaela Acton
Many of the ingredients in the fast foods RBHS students are accustomed to eating are potentially dangerous, according to recent research.
Photo by Mikaela Acton
Every Saturday morning at 5:30, while most teenagers are fast asleep beneath their covers, senior Zach Mefrakis is just waking up. He, his parents and his four brothers pile into their Ford F-150 and drive to the Columbia Farmers Market on Ash Street where they set up their produce tent and prepare for four hours of selling fresh, homegrown fruits and vegetables for their family business, Mefrakis Produce Farm.
Mefrakis says the business originally stemmed from his family’s long standing appreciation of local and homegrown food. Because of this, they rarely buy processed meals or snacks.
“We’re very aware of what goes into what we eat,” Mefrakis said. “We grow most of our foods, mostly just vegetables and fruit. If we need to go to the store, sometimes we do. It’s just not as healthy as growing your own stuff.”
Although his family only grows a variety of fruits and vegetables, their wholesome eating habits are not limited to produce only. Mefrakis’ grandparents own a farm in Perryville, Mo., where they humanely raise and slaughter their own cattle in order to produce high quality beef for local consumers. Mefrakis said his family buys only natural, farm-raised meat because of its overwhelming health benefits when compared to store-brand options.
“The cows that our grandparents own, you know, they’re not given hormones or anything like that,” Mefrakis said. “What the cows eat is mostly just grass and natural grains, so when we eat that beef, we’re only consuming the natural ingredients that it was fed. It’s a lot better for you that way.”
Health teacher and head athletic trainer Greg Nagel also recognizes the benefits of unprocessed meat and produce. Nagel said despite the convenience and ease of preparation that accompanies fast and processed food, the lack of nutritional value and potentially harmful preservatives they possess make these foods a poor choice for daily consumption.
“The cheapest things in the stores and the most convenient and affordable things to package and turn profit on happen to be those things that are high in simple sugar content and high in fat content,” Nagel said. “Basically with fast food it’s more about the fat content and the way it’s prepared, and with processed food it’s more about the preservatives that are in the food.”
Nagel said in order to keep processed food fresh on store shelves, companies will add potentially dangerous ingredients to the food. He said although the purpose of these ingredients is to make the food safe for consumption even after an extended period of time, these preservatives may have an extremely harmful effect on our health.
“Those preservatives and the high salt content are there to prevent excessive bacterial growth,” Nagel said. “When you’re starting to manipulate foods to try and kill bacteria with high sodium content and high preservative content, you’re toying with potential cancer causing things.”
Aside from the preservatives and excessive fat and sugar in fast and processed foods, Nagel said the presence of noxious bacteria is a major health concern as well. In 2011, the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, or NARMS, analyzed 480 samples each of ground beef, ground turkey, pork chops, and chicken breasts, wings and thighs, purchased in supermarkets around the country.
Researchers found antibiotic-resistant bacteria in an alarming 55 percent of ground beef, 81 percent of ground turkey, 69 percent of pork chops, and 39 percent of chicken breast, wings or thighs. Even more unsettling, the study identified the antibiotic-resistant Enterococcus bacteria in 87 percent of all collected meat. Researchers explained this served as an indicator that nearly all of this meat came in contact with fecal matter at some point during the process of production.
Nagel attributes these alarming rates of bacterial contamination to unsafe or inconsistent food handling procedures. He said that bacteria is common in our foods, but that this is preventable with proper food handling techniques and storage in appropriate temperatures.
“I think bacteria is on everything,” Nagel said. “If we don’t handle our foods properly or if we don’t store them the right way or if we leave them out for too long, I think those things can have a higher instance of bacterial prevalence and can cause bacterial infections more readily than the others.”
To avoid the health consequences of fast and processed food, Nagel recommends eating everything in moderation. He said it’s OK to indulge in a fast food meal every now and then, as long as the bulk of your diet consists of wholesome ingredients.
“By and large, when you’re shopping just [buy] fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and if its meat make sure its a cut of meat that you’re familiar with,” Nagel said. “I think that approach would improve almost everyone’s dietary intake.”
Nagel’s dietary recommendations are consistent with the eating habits of RBHS Gifted Education teacher Jake Giessman, who said he and his family prefer natural, whole foods over the more processed options.
“We’re kind of food snobs,” Giessman said. “We grow a lot of our own produce, and we eat mostly whole grains, and not that much processed food.”
Giessman said he tries to choose nutritious food options, while remaining within a reasonable budget. Despite the reputation of fresh foods as being overwhelmingly expensive, Giessman said eating healthy does not always have to be costly, and he recommends simple whole foods, which can be bought for surprisingly low prices.
“We’re health minded but we’re also cheap, so we find ourselves shopping at either Clovers or Wal-Mart,” Giessman said. “A lot of healthy foods are more expensive; however, some aren’t. For instance, rice and beans are about as cheap as you can get for food.”
Nagel said making wholesome food choices should be a priority for everyone who wants to take good care of their body, regardless of age or budget. He said healthy and affordable options exist for all types of individuals and choosing these foods plays a vital role in your overall health.
“There’s much truth to the saying, ‘You are what you eat,’” Nagel said. “You may not look like a Twinkie, but you may feel like that stuffing inside of a Twinkie if you’re not taking care of yourself, and you’re not watching what you put in your body.”
 By Anna Wright