Eight of the most processed foods and healthful alternatives.
Grocery store donuts for breakfast, followed by a pre-packaged turkey and cheese sandwich with mustard for lunch. Then a frozen pizza for dinner. If this menu sounds familiar, you are not alone. Most of us eat more processed foods than we realize or would care to admit.
“Some estimates show half or more of the American diet comes from processed food,” says Peggy O’Shea Kochenbach, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of POK Communications.
The reasons we reach for processed foods are legitimate: They are easy, inexpensive, and they taste pretty darn good.
Kochenbach notes that while many of the foods we talk about as being processed are unhealthy, some that are lightly processed, such as frozen fruits, pasteurized milk, and bagged salads, are not.
It’s the foods which have been chemically processed—sometimes called “ultra-processed”– and contain refined sugar, sodium, and artificial colors, sweeteners, and flavors, that we should avoid. These foods have been linked with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic health conditions.
If you’re wondering if a food is ultra-processed, check the ingredients label. “If it reads more like something out of a chemistry lab than a kitchen, it’s a processed food,” Kochenbach says.
Once you identify processed foods, your goal should be to eliminate as many as possible. “Good news is, there are often healthier alternatives that taste good,” she says.
To help, here the top eight processed foods to eliminate from your life, as well as some healthier options:
1. Breakfast cereals. Boxed breakfast cereals run the gamut, with the worst ones containing a super-processed combination of refined grains, added sugars and food coloring. “For a healthier choice, go for whole grain breakfast cereals with only one or two ingredients on the list. Then add whole, fresh toppers to boost the nutrition. “For example, go for shredded wheat or oatmeal topped with fresh berries and spices,” Kochenbach says.
2. Ice cream. A cone or sundae sounds so good, especially on a hot, sunny day. But guar gum, carrageenan or erythritol? Not so appetizing. These ingredients are as common to ice cream as sprinkles or hot fudge, so you might want to think twice the next time you’re ready to order a scoop. As a healthful alternative, Kochenbach suggests freezing bananas and blending them with peanut butter, strawberries, or cocoa powder for a satisfying frozen treat.
3. Frozen meals. Something feels unnatural about removing a plastic wrap from a frozen meal and placing it in the microwave. And for good reason—these boxed, frozen meals are unnatural! Many frozen meals are laden with sodium, fat, and preservatives. To get the same convenience minus the chemicals, Kochenbach suggests creating your own frozen meals, straight from homemade. “When you prepare a meal at home, make a few extra servings, and freeze them in containers you can pop out and reheat,” she says.
4. Granola and granola bars. The health food equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, some granolas contain as much sugar as a candy bar. For a nutritional alternative, make a homemade trail mix. “Toss some whole dried fruit (without added sugar) with raisins, peanuts, almonds, walnuts or whatever nuts you love,” Kochenbach says. “Another savory substitute is roasted chickpeas with low-sodium seasoning.”
5. Processed cheese. If it’s glowing orange or comes in an aerosol can, chances are, there’s very little cheese in your cheese. Instead of a “cheese product,” go for 100 percent cheddar (in limited quantities) or bypass the dairy altogether and top your chips chopped tomatoes or fresh avocado.
6. Microwave popcorn. Although they no longer contain trans fats (good news), most brands of microwave popcorn serve up palm oil, which studies show can increase LDL (bad) cholesterol. For an oil-free, healthful alternative, place fresh unpopped kernels in a nonstick pan with a tight-fitting lid. Put the pan on a stove over low to medium heat, lifting it off the burner and shaking it every few minutes. Watch the popcorn pop, then enjoy!
7. Commercial baked goods. For many of us, a packed school lunch just wasn’t complete without a cellophane-wrapped cupcake or pie. These processed treats may be nostalgic, but they aren’t good for you. Instead, go for berries topped with yogurt or a healthful homemade cookie full of dried fruit and nuts.
8. Pizza. Sometimes touted as a “healthier” choice than other fast foods, pizza is one of the most processed offenders out there. Most pizza is made from refined dough, heavily processed meats, and sodium-laden cheese. If the pizza came frozen, even worse. As an alternative, try making fresh, homemade pizza dough (it’s easy!) and topping it with tomatoes, spinach, pineapple, broccoli, basil, or other fresh ingredients.
Remember, the more you can substitute healthful foods for processed ones, the better you will feel. It’s a matter of making the effort to let go of processed foods.