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Top 6 Processed Foods to Avoid and 6 Healthier Options!

By Fitoru | 15 January 2019
buttery popcorn

Grocery stores are putting more time and effort into displaying foods than ever before. But are they highlighting healthy foods or processed foods to avoid? Over the last decade, many grocery chains have created beautiful produce departments reminiscent of farmers markets. But that is where the display of produce ends. Healthy foods aren’t the ones highlighted in the rest of the store! Instead, processed foods appear in the sale sheets and in prime shopping areas as temptations while you shop.

Here is a nugget of information for you—did you know that the food manufacturers pay for prime placement in grocery stores? The companies willing to pay the highest bounty score the end caps and the eye-level shelves in favorite aisles. Produce merchandisers, paid for by the distributor, create the displays to tempt shoppers into buying foods not on their lists. And it works.

Think about it—when was the last time you saw broccoli on an end cap? Farmers don’t have the money to purchase the prime spots—that is left for the manufacturers of processed foods. And their beautiful displays that make your mouth water are filled with boxed, canned, and zipped foods loaded with preservatives, chemicals, and other questionable diet choices. But sometimes, the convenience of processed food (and the price!) is just too tempting to pass up.

What Are Processed Foods?

Processed foods are food items that are manipulated and packaged before arriving at your local grocery store. When you walk down the aisles of your favorite store, pay attention to the items in boxes, bags, jars, and cans—those are processed foods! Besides the packaging, the ingredient label is another giveaway if a food is highly processed or not.

The ingredient labels of processed foods tell the story—pick up a packaged food and read the ingredients. The list likely contains ingredients you can’t pronounce or have never heard of. Processed foods are known for their chemical additives and preservatives—not for their healthy, real-food ingredients.

And the additives aren’t the only problem. Processed foods are by their very nature—processed! Many of the foods are handled and cooked and recooked multiple times before they ever make it to your table. This destroys whatever nutrients these foods had before they made their way down the conveyor belt.

So is processed food bad for you? Yes. It is best to avoid foods with added chemicals, preservatives, artificial dyes, artificial colors, and artificial flavors. Choose real foods instead—fresh or frozen—that retain the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that the body needs.

The Top 6 Worst Processed Foods List and 6 Healthier Substitutes

Here are the worst processed foods to avoid and some healthy options to fill the void!

1. Processed Cheese

If your favorite cheese is individually wrapped slices, string cheese, spreadable cheese, or spray cheese—put it down. These products are highly processed and contain little, if any, real cheese or even dairy. Processed cheese contains emulsifiers, saturated oils, tons of sodium, food coloring, sweeteners, and preservatives. The truth is—these aren’t real cheeses! And if you hate to grate cheese and you grab pre-shredded cheese—stop. Pre-shredded cheeses contain chemicals and additives to keep the shreds of cheese from clumping and molding.

Healthier Option

Head to the cheese counter and grab fresh mozzarella, white cheddar, gouda, Swiss, or bleu cheese instead. The key is to purchase real cheese—100% real cheese made without artificial colors and artificial flavors. If you must purchase cheese from the deli counter, choose natural cheeses great for slicing like provolone, baby Swiss, or Colby cheese.

2. Boxed Mac ’n Cheese

Boxed Mac ’n Cheese is a childhood favorite—and a mom favorite because it’s a one-pan wonder. But have you taken a moment to read the ingredient list? This is indeed one of the scariest processed foods you can eat. In 2017 the New York Times reported on the harmful ingredients in boxed macaroni and cheese—namely phthalates.

Phthalates are associated with disrupting testosterone and are actually linked to causing genital birth defects and behavior problems in older children. Here is the scary thing—even organic boxed macaroni and cheese contain phthalates according to the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging.

Healthier Option

In just 35 minutes, you can make a delicious, chemical-free, one-pot, mac ’n cheese your kids (and you!) will love. Alton Brown has created the perfect creamy Stove Top Mac-n-Cheese recipe containing only real ingredients. To be clear, this is a high-calorie, high-carb, and high-fat recipe—but it is definitely healthier than chemical-ridden processed choices.

3. Instant Ramen Noodles

We dare you to walk through any dorm and not find evidence of instant ramen noodles. They are cheap, versatile, and a favorite of college students and families on strict budgets across the country. But instant noodles contain a shocking amount of sodium, and that isn’t even the most concerning part.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard University have found that the digestive system really struggles to break down and digest instant ramen noodles. Why? Many health experts believe it’s because instant ramen noodles are loaded with the preservative TBHQ or T-butylhydroquinone.

Healthier Option

Fortunately, there are healthier ramen noodles available. And if you’re looking for gluten-free options, choose a millet and brown rice ramen noodle that cooks up quickly and retains its beautiful texture.

And, let’s talk about topping ramen noodles with something healthy! Boost the food value by topping your ramen noodles with fresh vegetables and lean meats like in this Healthy Chicken Ramen Bowl from Simple Healthy Kitchen.

4. Sugar Cereals

Every adult in the U.S. remembers the texture and taste of their childhood-favorite sugary cereal—but there is a reason that we don’t eat the same cereal as adults! Sugar cereal is a processed food that ticks all the boxes of unhealthy ingredients—refined grains, artificial flavors, artificial colors, preservatives, and ingredients you just can’t pronounce.

And let’s not forget that a breakfast loaded with sugar may give you an immediate energy high but cause a sugar crash before lunch. That is not good for kids in school or their teachers! High sugar diets in children are linked to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Healthier Option

Quick and easy breakfasts are a necessity! And you can have a healthy breakfast, without all the added sugar and chemicals, that tastes great. Instead of a processed cereal loaded with chemicals and sugar, whip up a batch of The Very Best Granola and serve it with Greek yogurt and some fresh berries.

5. Deli Meats and Bacon

Just this last year, the World Health Organization classified processed meats, including bacon and deli meats, as carcinogenic. The researchers further note that consuming 50 grams of processed meats each day increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. To reach 50 grams you only need between two and three slices of your favorite ham, salami, turkey, or bacon.

Healthier Option

Deli meats, bacon, and sausage are all processed foods, and while there are nitrate-free choices available, they are still processed foods. A healthier option is to roast a turkey breast or deli-style roast beef at the beginning of the week and slice it up for lunch.

6. Microwave Popcorn

When microwave popcorn was brought to market, there wasn’t an office building or dorm room that didn’t smell like popcorn in the afternoons. Microwave popcorn is easy, mess-free, and delicious—and it is definitely a processed food to avoid!

Microwave popcorn has several problems. First, most microwave popcorn bags contain PFOA, a chemical the Environmental Protection Agency has identified as a “likely carcinogen.” The next problem is the “butter” flavoring that contains diacetyl. This compound causes “popcorn workers lung,” a serious lung illness microwave popcorn factory workers get after extended inhalation of the chemical. And lastly, corn is one of the most prevalent GMO foods.

Healthier Option

Here is a secret none of the processed food companies want you to know—you can make microwave popcorn with popcorn and a brown paper bag. All you need is a lunch-size brown paper bag and 1/4 cup of GMO-free popcorn and you can be enjoying popcorn in just a few minutes—and you can top it with whatever real flavors you like!

  • 1/4 cup GMO-free popcorn
  • 1 lunch-size brown paper bag
Topping Options
  1. Pour the 1/4 cup of GMO-free popcorn in the bottom of the brown paper bag.
  2. Fold the top of the brown paper bag over a couple of times.
  3. Place the bag on its side with the folded edge up inside the microwave.
  4. Choose the “popcorn” setting on your microwave and start the process.
  5. Listen carefully, and stop the microwave when the popping slows down.
  6. Remove the popcorn from the microwave carefully and dump into a bowl—be careful of the steam.
  7. Top with melted butter or another of your favorite toppings and enjoy.

The Best Microwave Popcorn.


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