We’ve all been there…Driving home from a long day of work, didn’t have time to take your lunch break? Or saw your favorite fast food joint on the way home? Well, with busy schedules and no down time to cook a proper home-made meal, the most obvious thing to do is to grab something on the go.

Processed food is everywhere…and I mean EVERYWHERE! Bread is an example as well as pasta, cereal, and sandwich meats. Anything that does not come directly from the ground and eaten right there and then is processed. Even foods that many of us may think are considered healthy are processed. Granola? Processed. That Slim Fast or Atkins bar you’ve been noshing on while trying to lose weight? Processed.

Processed food has become such a big part of our lives, now more than ever. Believe it or not, processed food has been around since the prehistoric times. Methods such as fermentation, smoking, curing and drying have all been used to extend shelf life and enhance flavor. In the 1800s, techniques like tinning and pasteurization were developed to fight off bacteria and make food last longer. During the 19th and 20th century, food processing was brought to the next level in order to help feed military troops. Demand for ready-to-eat foods grew in the 20th century to keep up with busy, modern times.

What we don’t know is recent studies have shown that the ingredients in what we are eating are doing more harm than good.

In a study published in BMJ Open, the researchers found that for Americans, 58% of their diets consist of ultra-processed foods, defined as ready-to-eat meals or snacks that usually contain additives.

Hidden sugars are found in these foods, often disguised as artificial sweeteners, which are believed to be responsible for many medical issues including migraines, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. Ultra-processed foods are also often high in sodium, unhealthy fats, preservatives, and additives, and do not provide us with what we need the most including vitamins, antioxidants and minerals.

What’s important to know is that not all processed foods are made the same. Ultra-processed foods have undergone significant processing and often the ingredient list tends to look like it should be something in a science lab rather than sold on grocery shelves.

The 3 Stages of Food Processing

 

1. The first stage of “processing” involves making sure the food is edible. Harvesting grain, shelling nuts, and slaughtering chickens are all considered primary processing. Foods that have only gone through this stage of processing are often still considered “whole” foods.

2. A second stage makes a more complex, finished, “processed” product. This includes cooking, freezing, and canning.

3. A third stage, in which manufacturers inject flavors, added sugars, fats, and chemical preservatives, produces ultra-processed foods.

To make it easier to understand what to buy and what not to buy, a classification system called NOVA, developed by an international panel of food scientists and researchers splits foods into four categories:

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed foods: Think vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits, nuts, meats, seafood, eggs and milk. Make these real, whole foods the basis of your diet.
  • Processed culinary ingredients: These items make plain vegetables and a grilled chicken breast taste a whole lot better. Examples are herbs, spices, balsamic vinegar, garlic and oil. Use these ingredients in small amounts to create fresh, home-cooked meals.
  • Processed foods: When ingredients such as oil, sugar or herbs are added to foods and they are packaged, the result is processed foods. Examples are simple bread, cheese, tofu, and canned tuna or beans.
  • Ultra-processed foods: Here’s the category where 58% of our calories come from. These foods go through multiple processes (extrusion, molding, milling, etc.), contain many added ingredients and are highly manipulated. Examples are soft drinks, chips, chocolate, candy, ice-cream, sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged soups, chicken nuggets, hotdogs, fries and more.
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    With all this being said, just because something has gone through a process doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy to eat. In general, the ultra-processed foods are what you should cut back on or avoid.

    5 Easy Swaps:

     

    Potato Chips

     
    Swap these out for some vegetable chips such as Terra. These are made from real vegetables and contain minimal ingredients with no artificial flavors or preservatives.

    Sweetened Breakfast Cereals

     
    Swap these out with oatmeal made with rolled or steel-cut oats and sweeten with raw honey and fresh berries.

    Sodas

     
    Detox from those high-sugar sodas with naturally flavored sparkling water .

    Flavored Yogurt

     
    Enjoy the health benefits of fermented foods by switching from flavored yogurts that are high in sugar to plain Greek yogurt that is low in sugar and high in protein.

    Artificially Flavored Crackers

     
    Ditch the fake flavor and blood sugar spikes for crackers high in fiber and only made with natural flavors, such as Mary’s Gone Crackers .

    Tips on how to cut back on ultra-processed foods:

     

  • Make gradual changes instead of trying to cut everything out all at once, otherwise you’re usually doomed for failure.
  • Shop with a grocery list and stick to it.
  • Shop around the outer sides of the grocery store, as most processed foods are in the middle aisles.
  • Reading the labels. If you do not know how to pronounce an ingredient or have never heard of it, put the item back on the shelf and chose something with five or less ingredients.
  • Cook more often and plan your meals for the week. You’ll be less likely to find yourself in a position where you are very hungry and grab a highly processed food as a quick fix.
  • Dine out with the intention of making better choices. Avoid foods that are deep-fried and choose a vegetable for your side rather than a starch. Decline the bread basket.
  • Be less trustful in packaged foods marketed as “organic” or “healthy.” If the ingredient list is very long and you can’t pronounce the words, skip it.
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