Ideally, we’d shop the farmers market every day for fresh, local foods, and make all of our goodies from scratch. In reality, we live far from our food sources, have to buy foods we can store on the shelf, and barely have time to eat dinner, much less prepare it.
Processed foods are convenient, and not all of them are bad for you. Pre-chopped vegetables or fruits canned in their own juice are just two examples.
Read on to learn which processed foods to avoid and why.
A wide range of products are considered processed foods, including:
A variety of different techniques are used to process food. Any food that’s processed is usually frozen, canned, dried, baked, or pasteurized.
Foods can go through various levels of processing. On one end, vegetables may only be cleaned, cut, and portioned before being sold in bags. The most highly processed foods, however, will contain a lot of extra sugar, salt, oil, and calories. A good example is frozen pizza.
Additives such as salt and fat are there to make the food safe for consumption. Preservatives are also added to increase the food’s shelf life. When it comes to sticking to a healthy diet, though, the pros of these additives may not outweigh the cons.
Items loaded up with these ingredients can provide you with almost twice the daily recommended amount of sodium and sugar.
According to the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer, processed meat such as bacon and hot dogs can be classified as carcinogens. This is because of the amount of nitrates they contain. The study deemed them as bad as cigarettes.
A closer look: Each slice of pan-fried bacon contains an astounding .
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that adults limit themselves to 1,500 to 2,300 mg of sodium a day. Just one piece of bacon would account for 8 to 13 percent of your intake.
Try this instead: Avocado is a great alternative. It contains healthy fats and proteins. It also has a hearty rich flavor like bacon.
Shop for avocados.
Too bad granola bars are also full of added sugars, which digest quickly and don’t satisfy hunger for long. Despite their healthy marketing image, granola bars don’t offer much in the way of good nutrition.
Avoid them because of their high amount of simple carbohydrates and their long ingredient lists filled with difficult-to-pronounce words.
Try this instead: Some store-bought granola bars, such as KIND bars, are made with slightly less sugar. However, you may be better off making your own.
Experiment with a few different recipes. To control the amount of sugar, you can sweeten your bars with stevia. Also check out this low-carb granola bar from the blog Sweetashoney. Each bar only contains 1.4 g of sugar.
Flavored nuts have a shelf of their own in the sounds-good-for-you-but-isn’t pantry.
Whether they’re maple-flavored, soy sauce- and wasabi-dusted, or toffee-coated, flavored nuts are packed with extra salt and sugar. This extra salt and sugar can lead to weight gain, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Their sticky, sugary goodness also makes them the enemy of healthy teeth.
A closer look: One ounce (oz.) of contains about 10 g of fat and 11 g of sugar. A 1-oz. serving of from Blue Diamond provides 15 g of fat and 120 mg of sodium.
If you eat more than a handful of flavored nuts, you could end up consuming more fat, sugar, or salt than you might have bargained for.
Shop for unsalted nuts.
It’s in the bag. Perfluoroalkyls are just one class of chemical found in microwave popcorn bags. Some studies have linked perfluoroalkyls with health problems as diverse as impaired kidney function and poor semen quality.
A closer look: If you eat one serving of Pop Secret butter popcorn, you’ll get 270 mg of sodium and 8 g of fat (with 4 g being saturated). However, each bag contains 3.5 servings of popcorn.
Even if you split the bag of microwave popcorn with someone else, you’d still be taking in 472.5 mg of sodium and 7 g of saturated fat.
According to the AHA, no more than 5 to 6 percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fat. For a person who eats 2,000 calories a day, this would work out to just 11 to 13 g of saturated fat.
On top of that, microwave popcorn is often made with the controversial palm oil.
Try this instead: A much healthier alternative is to simply buy corn kernels and pop them on the stove yourself. Put them in a pan, cover the top with tinfoil, and turn on the heat. The kernels will begin to pop.
You can also enjoy unflavored nuts instead of popcorn.
Shop for corn kernels.
You might reach for a handful of raisins or a few spears of dried mango to satisfy a sweet tooth. There’s a really good reason they’re so satisfying. These dried fruits have a good amount of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, making them a better option than Skittles.
Be careful with the portion size, though. Even a small portion carries a high-calorie, high-sugar punch.
The extra sugar also promises weight gain. If you eat more than your body needs, it adds to your body’s fat store.
A closer look: Dried fruit can contain anywhere from 32.5 percent sugar (as in ) to 66.5 percent sugar (as in ). Try to avoid candied fruit, which is dried fruit with added sugar or syrup.
Try this instead: If you’re looking for a snack that’s quick and sweet, consider frozen fruit. It’s often cut into bite-sized chunks already and is more versatile. Add frozen fruit to cereal, smoothies, or other beverages.
Shop for frozen fruit.
An enemy of both your teeth and your waistline, fruit snacks may be the grocer’s most inaccurately named food.
Most varieties contain only a drop of actual fruit ingredients and are packed with high fructose corn syrup and cane sugar. These sweeteners could lead to weight gain, which can increase your risk for diabetes.
Their excess sugar and gelatinous ingredients also stick to teeth, providing an ideal environment for bacteria to create cavities.
A closer look: One look at the nutrition label for Welch’s fruit snacks may be enough to make you avoid them. One small pouch (25.5 g) of the strawberry flavor contains .
Try this instead: The best alternative to fruit snacks and other fruit candy is real fruit. Real fruit is packed with essential vitamins and minerals and has significantly less sugar than its sticky, chewy counterparts.
Shop for fresh fruit.
There was a time when margarine was considered the healthy alternative to butter. However, the truth is that some margarine contains a lot of trans fats.
Trans fats are considered to be unhealthier than any other fat, including saturated fats. Trans fats increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad cholesterol. This can lead to heart disease and stroke.
Although the link between trans fatty acids and cancer is unclear, Johns Hopkins Medicine is just one institution that recommends that people with cancer lower their intake of trans fats.
A closer look: A quick glance at the nutrition label for a carton of margarine may shock you. Just contains 4 g of fat and 38 mg of sodium.
Try this instead: There are a few good substitutes for the smooth consistency of margarine. One is mashed avocado. Its oily richness makes it useful as a spread. When cooking or baking, some nut milks and yogurts can be also used instead of margarine.
“Catsup” or “ketchup”? No matter where you stand on the spelling debate, one of America’s favorite condiments spells bad news.
While a little dollop of ketchup is fine, the amounts we slather onto our burgers and fries is problematic, as is the frequency.
The tomatoes in ketchup are so diluted by sugar and salt that they offer no nutritional value. With most of the calories in ketchup coming from sugar, you might as well sprinkle your fries with sugar!
Try this instead: One way to get around using store-bought ketchup is to make it yourself. A cup of tomato paste with a teaspoon of vinegar is what creates the consistency. You can then flavor the mixture to taste with sugar or salt.
Most college students have had the experience of powering through finals week fueled only by instant ramen and cheap coffee. Warning: You shouldn’t continue this habit beyond your senior year. Better yet, stop now.
The high amounts of salt boost your blood pressure. With simple carbohydrates making up most of the other ingredients, ramen provides almost zero nutritional support. You should also check out the amount of fat in ramen noodles.
Who knew so many unhealthy things could come in such a small package! As a healthy meal, instant ramen gets a failing grade.
A closer look: A packet of ramen can contain . That’s before you even add the flavor packet, which will contribute another 100 mg of sodium as well as other additives like monosodium glutamate (MSG).
People in South Korea eat more instant ramen than almost any other group in the world. Recent studies have proposed a link between ramen consumption and health problems such as obesity and metabolic syndrome, for women in particular.
More conclusive research is needed. However, one thing we know for certain is that this instant meal contains too many carbs and too much salt.
Try this instead: Zucchini noodles would be a better option. In fact, these noodles can be used in place of virtually any traditional pasta. Making zucchini noodles is as easy as creating spirals or strips with a simple kitchen device.
Frozen dinners are the next best thing to takeout: a complete meal with an entrée, vegetables, and a starch, all on one plate, right out of the microwave.
However, classic frozen dinners are often packed with sugars, fat, and sodium. Those additives can lead to weight and heart problems. They can also raise your blood pressure, putting you at danger for stroke.
If you do get frozen meals, focus on organic or low-sodium versions with an ingredient list containing foods you recognize.
A closer look: A Banquet meal of fried chicken, gravy, mashed potatoes, and corn contains . A Salisbury steak meal from Marie Callender’s contains . It comes with gravy, roasted potatoes, and macaroni and cheese.
Try this instead: An alternative to buying frozen dinners is re-creating them on your own. Grill a chicken, make some mashed potatoes, roast some corn, and bake a batch of biscuits. Place the foods on a platter and freeze them.
This may require some extra planning ahead. However, when you’re next in need of a quick and healthy meal, it’ll be ready to go.
Processed foods aren’t a modern invention. They’ve been around since the first barrel of salt pork sailed across the Atlantic. They are convenient and give us access to foods that would otherwise perish in transit.
Enjoy them in moderation, and use common sense. Check the nutrition labels to avoid anything high in fats, sugars, and chemicals you can’t pronounce. Be sure to make fresh, simple ingredients the focus of your diet.
As long as fatty, sugary, or salty processed foods aren’t accounting for more than 20 percent of your daily food intake, it should be fine.
Some processed foods that may be a healthier choice include: