Processed foods have become a pantry staple in households across the globe. Dig a little deeper into nearly any kitchen and you’re sure to find a jar of tomato sauce, some canned vegetables and a few frozen foods lurking in the freezer.
But with a slew of recent studies showing that these common ingredients may actually do more harm than good when it comes to your health and may even be linked to a higher risk of death, many people have started to wonder whether it may be time to start making some swaps in their daily diets, whether you’re following a vegan, Paleo or ketogenic diet (or any kind, for that matter).
So is bread a processed food? Is rice a processed food? And what are processed meats exactly? Keep reading for everything you’ve ever wanted to know about processed foods, plus how they can affect your heath.
What Are Processed Foods?
Processed foods are a tricky subject. Bread, for example, is a processed food, even if it’s homemade; you don’t just nibble on grains, you process them into a loaf. Nut butters are processed, too, when they’re churned into a creamy spread. In fact, any food that hasn’t been directly pulled out of the ground and eaten is technically processed, including frozen fruits or canned veggies.
So what is processed food? The official processed food definition encompasses any food that has undergone some type of change before it’s ready to eat. This can range from processed meats or produce that have simply been frozen to extend longevity all the way to unhealthy processed foods like chips or nuggets that have undergone extensive changes in order to achieve a specific taste, texture and appearance.
According to a study in the medical journal BMJ Open, foods like soda, cereal, cookies and frozen dinners are all considered “ultra-processed foods,” or “formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations.”
It might not come as a huge shock that Americans eat a lot of these foods, but what might surprise you is the extent to which we’re binging on them. A study published in the journal found that 58 percent of the average American’s daily energy intake comes from ultra-processed foods like cakes, white breads and sodas.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, the study also found that 90 percent of Americans’ “added sugar intake” comes from ultra-processed foods. In fact, sugar makes up about 21 percent of the calories in ultra-processed foods; in processed foods, that number dwindles down to about 2.4 percent.
The hidden sugars found in these foods, often disguised as different types of artificial sweeteners, are believed to be responsible for a variety of health conditions, ranging from obesity to type 2 diabetes to migraines.
Is sugar bad for you? YES. In fact, studies have shown that consuming more than 25 percent of daily calories from added sugar may be associated with a significantly higher risk of death from heart disease compared to consuming less than 10 percent. Therefore, it’s really not much of a stretch to say that added sugars are killing us.
Processed Foods vs. Ultra-Processed Foods vs. Unprocessed Foods
So what is processed food and how can it affect your health? It’s important to remember that not all processed foods are created equally and there’s certainly a spectrum when it comes to processed food – for instance, chowing down on Twinkies is certainly not the same as adding frozen spinach to your smoothies, even though they’re both technically processed.
Ultra-processed foods are that foods that have undergone significant processing and often include a long list of ingredients, many of which you would expect to find in a science lab rather than a kitchen. This generally encompasses most of the “bad processed foods,” including things like frozen meals and convenience foods, sodas, store-bought cakes and cookies, boxed dessert mixes, chips, pretzels, crackers and more.
Processed foods, on the other hand, can include pre-packaged ingredients such as pasta sauce, salad dressings and bread. While these foods are likely okay in moderation, it’s still best to make your own at home whenever possible to cut down on the added ingredients and stay in control of what you’re putting on your plate.
Minimally processed foods are better a better option and are generally considered the most healthy processed foods you can eat. This can include options like extra virgin olive oil, ground meats, plain yogurt, natural nut butters, canned and frozen vegetables and fruits that have been processed at their peak to optimize freshness and nutrition.
Finally, unprocessed foods are unaltered ingredients that are found in their natural state. Fresh fruit, wild-caught fish, veggies, nuts and seeds all make the list of non processed foods and can all be enjoyed as part of a healthy, well-rounded diet.
Top 17 Processed Foods to Avoid
Wondering which foods you should kick to the curb and eliminate from your diet altogether? Here is a list of the top 17 processed foods to avoid for weight loss, heart health, improved energy levels and more.
- Processed meats (bacon, salami, cold cuts, etc.)
- Instant noodles
- Convenience meals
- Sugar-sweetened beverages (soda, sweet tea, juice, sports drinks)
- Microwave popcorn
- Refined vegetable oils
- Potato chips
- Store-bought cookies, cakes and pastries
- Artificial sweeteners
- French fries
- Granola bars
- Flavored yogurt
- Breakfast cereals
- Refined grains
- Candy bars
- Fast food
Side Effects of Processed Foods
Unhealthy processed foods are often low in nutrients, supplying little more than extra calories, fat, sugar and sodium without providing the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that your body needs to stay healthy. Loading up on these nutrient-poor foods can increase the risk of weight gain and nutritional deficiencies, which may potentially lead to conditions like anemia, osteopenia and other vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
Because many processed foods are also loaded with added sugar, frequently indulging in these unhealthy “bad food” options can also promote poor eating habits, such as food addiction and overeating.
Plus, overdoing it on the processed junk may also increase your risk of serious health problems. For example, a 2018 study examined the medical records and eating habits of 104,980 healthy adults and found that a 10 percent increase in ultra-processed foods in the diet correlated with a 12 percent increase in cancer risk. When analyzing the link between specific types of cancer, the study found a rise of 11 percent in breast cancer and no significant increase in colorectal or prostate cancer.
Another recent 2019 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that consuming higher amounts of ultraprocessed foods was linked to a higher risk of death among middle-aged adults in France. According to the study, increasing intake by just 10 percent was associated with a 14 percent higher risk of all-cause mortality.
Certain types of processed foods, such as processed meats, have also been associated with chronic disease and adverse effects on health. What is processed meat? Meat products that have been cured, canned or dried like bacon, salami, jerky and corned beef are all considered processed meats, and they’re generally loaded with preservatives and additives, many of which can cause serious side effects.
In fact, studies show that increased consumption of processed meats may be linked to a higher risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes and several types of cancer, including colorectal and stomach cancer.
Here are some of the other possible side effects that processed foods may contribute to:
- Low energy levels
- High cholesterol or triglycerides
- Increased blood pressure
- Insulin resistance
- High blood sugar
- Chronic pain
How to Tell If a Food Is a Processed Food
So how can you differentiate between what are processed foods vs what are healthier options on your next trip to the grocery store? The easiest way to get started is by simply looking at the ingredients label.
Unprocessed foods will have just a few ingredients listed, all of which are healthy whole foods, spices and seasonings that you can easily find in the kitchen. Heavily processed foods, on the other hand, are likely to contain an extensive list of ingredients, including food additives, preservatives, synthetic dyes and more.
As a general rule of thumb, try to stick to products with less than five ingredients. While this may not always be a foolproof method, it is typically a good indicator that a food may be minimally processed.
Additionally, steer clear of refined grains such as white bread, pasta and rice and opt for whole-grain varieties instead. Similarly, avoid processed meats like salami, bacon and cold cuts and go for healthier alternatives like grass-fed beef, free-range poultry or wild-caught fish.
Added sugars or artificial sweeteners are also a dead giveaway to help you spot processed foods. Keep in mind that many processed foods also contain added sugars masquerading as health foods, including sweeteners with “natural” names such as cane sugar, brown rice syrup, barley malt, corn syrup and agave nectar.
How to Swear Off Processed Foods
1. Make gradual changes
While it’s tempting to make drastic changes, you and your family will have a better chance at sticking to healthy habits if you decide on one change at a time and see it through.
For example, if you usually serve soda or juice with meals, try replacing one glass with water instead. After a few days, replace another glass. Not only will this help ease you into changes mentally, but it’ll also help reduce any physical symptoms you might experience.
2. Shop with a grocery list
It’s a lot easier to make healthy choices and avoid junk food when you have a list of the items you’re looking for. Make a list of the meals you’re preparing for the week and all of the ingredients required. And if you’re thinking of heading to the store without eating, forget about it. Shopping on a full stomach will make it harder to resist those foods you should avoid.
3. Shop the perimeter
You’ve probably heard it before, but there’s a reason it’s advised that you shop the edge of the store and skip most of the middle aisles. Fresh produce, meats and dairy products are nearly always around the store perimeter, while ultra-processed foods get stacked on the shelves in the middle of the store. By limiting the aisles you shop, you’ll resist temptation to purchase bad-for-you foods.
Similarly, hit the healthier part of the grocery store first. One of the best things about certain Whole Foods is that you enter the store in the vegetable and fruit area, so you start loading up on the best foods in the store well before you may start getting tempted by the naughty processed or ultra-processed foods in the middle.
4. Read the ingredients list
If there’s something on the ingredients list of a packaged food that you couldn’t buy to use in your own kitchen – or whose name you can’t even pronounce – it’s probably highly processed and best avoided.
Don’t forget that ingredients are listed in the order of how prevalent in a food they are, so it’s especially important to be aware of what’s listed as one of the first five ingredients. Or better yet, avoid foods that have more than five ingredients in them altogether.
5. Look out for added sugars
Food manufacturers have gotten cleverer about how sugars are listed by using different terms in the ingredients list. One rule of thumb is that ingredients ending with “ose” are sugars: think sucrose, fructose and dextrose. Another is to use fancy or “natural” sounding sugars, such as cane sugar, beet sugar, cane juice, fruit juice and maple syrup, all of which are all still sugar when it comes down to it.
Related: How Much Sodium Per Day Do You Need?
Healthier Alternatives + Recipes
Ready to cut out the junk food but not sure what to eat instead? Here are a few healthy alternatives that you can try:
Say no to those artificially colored, deep-fried potato chips with zero nutritional value and instead try making your own chips at home. You can also swap out the potatoes for other fruits and vegetables to try making spicy kale chips, zucchini chips or even sweet baked apple rings. Keep these on hand when you need a TV time snack or something nutritious to nibble on while getting dinner ready.
For a food that requires so little to make, frozen pizzas are loaded with preservatives, additives and an array of unrecognizable ingredients. Instead of keeping a stash in the freezer, try loading up on some easy doughs, such as coconut crust pizzaor cauliflower pizza crust, and sprinkling on your favorite toppings. These are super tasty, come together quickly and can be easily customized to fit your personal palate.
Sodas and juices:
Replace sugary sodas and store-bought juices with homemade drinks that taste great and are good for you, too. This anti-inflammatory green juiceis one of the top detox foods and can help boost your body’s natural defenses. Meanwhile, this orange carrot ginger juiceis a crowd-pleaser amongst kids – the only difference they’ll notice is how much better this juice tastes.
Cakes and frosting:
Sweet treats don’t need to be eliminated entirely, but when there are alternatives that taste this good, there’s no need for ultra-processed versions. This chocolate frosting is fantastic atop homemade baked goods and can even be used to whip up a guiltless gluten-free chocolate cake!
The ubiquity of ultra-processed foods can be difficult to escape, but it can definitely be done. Eliminating those foods and replacing them with healthier alternatives is one of the best things you can do for your family’s health.
Need a few more ideas? Here are some healthy and delicious recipes using ingredients on the minimally processed foods list to help cut out processed junk and improve your health:
- Gluten-Free Toaster Pastry
- Sweet Potato Black Bean Burger
- Crispy Orange Beef
- Tempeh Chicken Nuggets
- Bone Broth Protein Blueberry Macadamia Nut Bar
Although thought of as a relatively recent phenomenon, processed foods have been around for thousands of years and can be traced back to prehistoric times. In fact, processing methods like fermentation, drying, smoking and curing have long been used to enhance the flavor and extend the shelf-life of foods.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, technological advancements helped bring food processing to the next level to help feed military troops. In the 1800s, for example, techniques like canning, tinning and pasteurization were all developed to make food last longer and kill off bacteria. By the 20th century, demand for more long-lasting, highly efficient food products continued to grow and practices like freeze-drying and evaporation were used to produce foods like instant soups, noodles and convenience meals.
Today, there is an extensive list of processed foods commonly found in the average Western diet, from frozen pizzas to fast food to chips, crackers, cookies and more, with studies showing that these ultra-processed ingredients comprise up to 58 percent of the typical American diet.
However, as more and more research emerges demonstrating just how much of a role diet plays in overall health, researchers have begun recommending more of a whole food diet with only minimal amounts of processed food to prevent disease and promote better health.
Risks and Precautions
Diets high in processed foods have been linked to a host of health problems, from chronic disease to weight gain and beyond. However, not all processed foods are created equal. While it is certainly best to fill your diet with mostly nonprocessed foods such as fruits, veggies and healthy meats, a few minimally processed products can also be included in moderation here and there.
Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, whole grain products, natural nut butters, plain yogurt and extra-virgin olive oil are just a few products that are technically processed, but can still be included as part of a healthy and nutritious diet.
- What are processed foods? The official processed foods definition refers to any food that has been altered in some way prior to consumption.
- Processed foods fall on a spectrum, from ultra-processed foods that are laden with extra ingredients and additives to non-processed foods that are high in nutrients and still found in their natural state.
- Not only are many processed foods often high in calories, sugar, sodium and fat, but a diet high in these unhealthy ingredients has been associated with a higher risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
- Processed foods may also cause other side effects, including weight gain, low energy levels, nutritional deficiencies, constipation and high blood pressure.
- To keep your intake under control, try practicing label reading, shop with a grocery list, make one change at a time and stick to healthier alternatives like fruits, veggies, whole grains and minimally processed meats.
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