Processed Foods: What to Know

Blog, Food

By Melinda Maryniuk, MEd, RD, CDCES

Many people don’t realize there’s a difference between processed foods and ultra-processed foods… and in fact, ultra-processed foods make up just over 60% of the total diet of adults in the US! Recently, there have been a number of important research studies from around the world pointing to the hazards of eating too many highly processed items. Here’s what you need to know!

Ultra-processed foods are typically mass-produced. They are convenient, ready-to-eat, and have a long shelf life (meaning, they won’t spoil easily). They are generally inexpensive, but they are normally high in added sugar, salt, unhealthy fats and additives such as food colorings, flavorings and emulsifiers.

A growing body of research studies point to the risks of eating too many of these foods. Diets high in ultra-processed foods have been linked with an increase in calories and weight gain, an increased risk of cancer (particularly breast cancer), an increased risk of heart disease, and an overall increased risk of death. These are good reasons to think about what you are eating on a regular basis that is processed, and what you can do to cut back.

A group of Brazilian scientists proposed a food category system which sorts foods based on the degree of processing, and it has been adopted by researchers and public health advocates worldwide. The table below is adapted from this system. It helps separate out those foods that have undergone some processing, but are still generally healthy (like canned vegetables, canned tuna, or whole grain bread made in a bakery) from those that are highly (or “ultra”) processed.

Take a look at the foods in the ultra-processed column. Are there any you eat on a regular basis?  Are there one or two you might be able to limit or cut out entirely, and swap for something in either the “processed” or “unprocessed list”? The goal is to make gradual changes so your overall intake is less from the left hand column and more from the right.


– Shop the perimeter of the store. The least processed foods are found around the edges of your supermarket.

– Look at the nutrition facts panel. Buy foods with the least number of ingredients.

– DIY. While it can take a bit more time, combining ingredients to make granola or flavoring plain yogurt with fruit will decrease the number of additives in your diet.

– Cook more. Keep in mind that “cooking” does not have to be involved with complex recipes. Combining unprocessed fresh meats, grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits and spices along with some processed food

– Focus on 1 or 2 changes. Start small. Pick one or two ultra-processed foods you might try to reduce. Talk with your family about the importance of making these changes.

– *Try to eat less ultra-processed foods (mass produced for convenience), such as:

  • Soft drinks, chips
  • Sweetened, flavored yogurt
  • Commercial bread, crackers, or baked goods
  • Frozen pizza & frozen ready-meals
  • Candy
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Snack bars
  • Fast food burgers, hot dogs, sausage, deli meats, chicken nuggets

– *Understand what types of foods are processed, but not ultra-processed:

  • Cheese
  • Bakery or homemade bread
  • Canned fruits & vegetables
  • Canned meats
  • Salted or sugared nuts and seeds
  • Oil & butter
  • Sugar & salt

– *Try to incorporate more unprocessed foods into your diet:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Nuts & seeds
  • Legumes (beans, lentils, corn)
  • Whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, bulger)
  • Meat, poultry, fish
  • Milk
  • Plain yogurt (no added sugar)
  • Herbs & spices
  • Tea, coffee, and water

Recipes you can use at home:

Homemade Chicken Nuggets

Serves: 2  Calories: 311   Carbs: 3 grams  Protein: 24 grams

 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
½ cup flour (or ½ cup almond flour if gluten free)
1 Tbsp Italian seasoning
2 Tbsp olive oil
½ tsp salt
½ tsp pepper

Preheat oven to 400°F. In bowl, stir together the flour, and spices. Cut chicken up into 1 inch thick pieces, trimming off and discarding any excess fat. Toss chicken with the olive oil and then place each piece in the bowl with the flour and spices, making sure each piece is well coated. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 20 minutes, then turn on the broiler and place under broiler for an additional 3-4 minutes to make the outside crispy. Serve immediately with mustard or a hot sauce if desired.

Strawberry Banana Yogurt

Serves: 2  Calories: 210  Carbs: 28 grams  Protein: 25 grams

2 cup plain Greek non-fat yogurt
½ cup sliced strawberries
½ cup sliced banana
1 tsp honey or sweetener if desired

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Let sit for a few hours in the refrigerator for the flavors to meld.

Oven-Baked Potato Chips

Serves: 6    Calories:  116    Carbs: 12 gram   Fat: 7 grams

2 medium Yukon Gold or Idaho potatoes peeled and thinly sliced on a mandolin
3 Tbsp vegetable oil ( such as olive, canola or corn)
Seasonings as desired (salt, pepper, cumin, chile powder, toasted sesame seeds, dried dill… etc)

Preheat oven to 400°F. Slices potatoes into a bowl and immediately toss them with the oil. Season lightly and place on a baking sheet in a single layer. Bake 12-15 minutes or until golden brown. Season again if desired. Transfer to a rack to cool and become crispy.


*Information from NOVA.