Scientists in the U.K. have found a way of making certain processed foods healthier.

The study identified a kind of contaminating molecule known as pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMP), which are released by certain types of bacteria as they grow during some food processing and refrigeration processes, and may increase the risk of developing conditions such as coronary artery disease and Type 2 diabetes.

The research team at the University of Leicester found that PAMPs are undetectable in non-processed and fresh foods, suggesting that they develop during the manufacturing process. Once foods have been chopped finely, especially if minced, the PAMP content rises rapidly — even when stored at refrigeration temperature.

Dr. Clett Erridge from the University of Leicester’s Department of Cardiovascular Sciences, who led the study, said: “It has been understood for many years that frequent consumption of highly processed foods, particularly processed meats, is associated with increased risk of developing a range of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity. Our recent findings have uncovered a potential mechanism by which certain types of processed food increase risk of developing these diseases.

“In essence, we have discovered that contaminating molecules that arise in processed foods from the overgrowth of a specific type of bacteria during refrigeration or food processing can cause our immune systems to over-react in a manner that might be damaging to health when we eat foods containing these molecules.”

However, the good news is that the new method of detecting PAMPs could be used by food manufacturers to help identify where in their production process the molecules arise.

According to Dr. Erridge, “it should be possible to manufacture almost any current foodstuff in a manner that results in a low content of pro-inflammatory PAMP molecules. Our method can also be used to monitor progress in efforts to clean up the production process.”

Processed foods that were found to frequently contain high levels of PAMPs included foods containing minced meat (such as sausages and burgers), ready meals (especially lasagna and bolognese), some cheeses, chocolate and some types of ready-chopped vegetables such as onions.

Sauces, sandwiches and other foods containing these as ingredients were also found to have a relatively high risk of PAMP contamination, the researchers said.

The findings could help make these foods healthier without any significant change in taste, texture, cost or ingredients.