Fresh vs Processed: The reality of junk food

Fresh vs Processed: The reality of junk food

As a student, under time or financial stress, it may be convenient to buy quick and easy off-the-shelf or take-away food products. However, the effect of this can be long-lasting and severe. What is the impact of buying processed food in comparison to fresh food and what options are there to make more informed choices in the future?

What is the difference between fresh and processed food?

Fresh foods, by definition, are foods that “are not frozen or preserved in any way.” (Overly, 2014) Fresh foods are typically locally sourced to reduce the time and resources spent on transport. They maintain their nutrient values as well as the authentic taste with little to no added preservatives.

In contrast, processed foods have been altered or modified from their original form during preparation. The amount of processing a food undergoes varies. Examples include, savoury snacks (‘junk food’), ‘convenient food’ such as ready cooked meals or microwavable meals etc.

What is the problem with buying processed foods?

The more steps in processing, the greater the overall cost. Additionally, the greater the distance the food has to be transported, the greater the energy use and cost. Processed foods require more energy to produce and therefore place a greater demand on energy resources. This eventually leads to higher levels of Greenhouse gases emitted as well as high levels of water used, leading to higher levels of pollution.

Furthermore, processed food can have a detrimental effect on health as they usually contain higher levels of salt, added sugars, saturated fats, preservatives and other agents as well as fewer nutrients and lower levels of antioxidants. (EPA, 2008) It has been suggested that excessive amounts of these substances, especially within junk foods, are linked to heart disease, type II diabetes and mental illness such as depression. (Geer, 2014) Often, processed foods lack of nutrients and antioxidants which are essential for your health and play an important role in boosting your immune system to prevent disease.

What is the problem with buying fresh foods?

It can be tricky to buy fresh foods, especially in the UK as most of our fruits and vegetables can’t be grown all throughout the year. Therefore, they are imported from countries where they are in-season. Unfortunately, most large chain supermarkets will have only foods that have been transported long distances, as it is easier for them to buy in bulk to meet the demands of their customers.

How can I reduce the amount of processed food I consume?

Despite the stated difficulty, you can make a huge impact starting with small changes to reduce the amount of processed food you buy. Some tips to reduce the amount of processed food consumed are:

  • Buy at local farmers markets – for instance, Stepney City Farm is a 15-minute walk from the Mile End campus and holds a market every Saturday 10am-3pm. Also, Tower Green Hamlets is an organic fruit and vegetable box scheme with real values and a strong community ethos that provides locally sourced organic fresh produce to East London residents. Search online, for other farmers markets and veggie box schemes closer to you as well.
  • Buy seasonal foods to guarantee that they are fresh and if possible, locally sourced.
  • Choose foods with less packaging – they are less likely to have undergone extensive processing.
  • Don’t waste food – only buy what you will eat, so you can invest on better quality products.
  • Shop during ‘happy hour’ to reduce money spent- many supermarkets discount fresh items at the end of the day.

Living in a modern-day world can make it hard to avoid processed food. But with our help you can tackle this issue. It all starts with the choices you make. Wouldn’t you want to minimise the consequences of processed food on both the environment and your health?


EPA (2014) - ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT TIPS – FOOD Publication number 1219

Geer (2014) - 10 Ways Fast Food is Destroying the World – One Green Planet