Everyone knows that processed foods aren't exactly good for the human body, but a new study by researchers at the University of Leicester has shed more light on exactly why that's the case. The scientists have detected dangerous molecules called pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs), which are linked to numerous conditions, including Type 2 diabetes. Perhaps most interestingly, it is believed that the dangerous molecules could potentially be removed without impacting cost or taste.

The researchers performed their analysis on various processed foods, including burgers, ready-chopped vegetables, sausages and ready meals. During testing, they found that a large percentage of the products contained a bacteria that gives rise to the PAMPs.

Thought to grow during refrigeration or food processing, PAMPs are very dangerous, causing damage to health and leading to potentially deadly conditions such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.

The PAMP molecules were found to be most common in foods containing minced meat (such as burgers and sausages), ready meals (most notably bolognese and lasagna) and certain chocolates and cheeses. By contrast, fresh meat, fruit or vegetables have undetectable PAMP levels, though they start to appear rapidly once the food is finely chopped and left for a period of time.

Having identified the PAMPs, the team set to work quantifying exactly how dangerous the molecules might be to human health, testing a group of volunteers on a diet low in PAMPs for a week, and observing the effect.

At the end of the test period, the researchers identified an 11 percent reduction in patient's white blood cell count, as well as a 18 percent lowering of harmful cholesterol levels. According to the team, if those lowered levels were maintained, it would amount to a 40 percent reduced risk of developing coronary artery disease.

There were also other benefits of the change in diet, with participants experiencing a lowering of their body weight (an average of 0.6 kg or 1.3 lb) and a reduction in waist circumference of 1.5 cm (0.6 in). As with the internal changes brought on by the diet, those physical improvements also have some big health implications, lowering the chance of developing Type 2 diabetes by around 15 percent.

To confirm that the lack of PAMPs was responsible for the changes, the researcher then gave the subjects PAMPs-heavy diets, at which point the positive developments were quickly reversed.

Processed foods have been linked to an increase risk of developing potentially life threatening conditions for years, but now that the potential mechanism by which that risk is brought about have been identified, it's possible to look at ways of targeting the cause of the issue.

The researchers believe that food manufacturers have a big role to play in reducing the risk to consumers, simply by analyzing different elements of the food production process to isolate where and when the PAMP molecules are arising. This would allow for the machinery or raw materials responsible for introducing the contamination to be pinpointed, providing an opportunity to eradicate the issue.

"The present work suggests that removing these molecules from common foods could provide a health benefit to consumers and suggest a potential means of making some of our favorite foods healthier without any appreciable change to taste, texture, cost or ingredients," said study lead Dr. Clett Erridge.

The findings of the work were published in the journal Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases.