Real Food Tips: 10 Highly Processed Foods to Avoid

There are a lot of these “foods to avoid” lists floating around the internet I so was inspired to make a list of my own.

Highly Processed Foods and Ingredients to Avoid:

  1. Artificial ingredients
    This includes both synthetic dyes (like FD&C Red No. 40, Tartrazine, or Blue No. 1) and artificial sweeteners (like saccharin, aspartame, or sucralose). When you look at the history of food artificial ingredients haven’t been around all that long, and I don’t know about you, but I am not interested in being the guinea pig here. Plus the fact that artificial dyes require a warning label in many countries outside of the U.S. is enough of a deal breaker for me. 
    Instead: Look for dyes that come from natural sources (like paprika, saffron, or annatto) or forget the coloring all together (it’s only for aesthetics). When it comes to sweeteners pick those that come from natural sources (like honey, maple syrup, and even sugar) over the artificial stuff, but always consume them in moderation (see #2).
    10 Highly Processed Foods to Avoid by 100 Days of Real Food

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  2. Refined sweeteners
    It’s not that refined sweeteners themselves (like sugar) are the devil, but the quantity in which sweeteners are consumed these days is honestly the scary part. Sugar (or corn syrup or cane juice or brown rice syrup or whatever creative name is on the label) is no longer reserved for truly special occasions anymore, and instead is lurking in yogurts, breads, crackers, flavored oatmeal, beverages, and even innocent-looking salad dressings.
    Instead: Rely on natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup since they are mostly “processed” in nature and at least contain some trace nutrients. BUT it’s important to remember that “sugar is sugar” no matter what you choose. So even if you go the more natural route (which is recommended!) that by no means gives you the green light to turn up the bottle. It’s also helpful to buy foods “plain” (like yogurt, oatmeal, etc.) and sparingly sweeten them yourself to make sure things don’t get out of hand.
  3. Refined grains
    This includes products made from white flour (usually labeled as enriched “wheat” flour), white rice, corn meal, etc. When grains are refined the most nutritional part of the grain (the bran and germ) is removed. This prolongs shelf life among other things, but remember…real food should (and does!) rot so avoid the science experiment and stick to the whole grains provided to us by nature.
    Instead: Give up the white stuff and rely on nutritious whole-grains like whole-wheat flour, oats, brown rice, quinoa, and others.
  4. Factory farmed meat and seafood
    “Factory farms” raise animals in incredibly crowded and confined quarters so some (literally) never see the light of day. What’s more these animals are oftentimes fed unnatural diets (for instance cows were meant to eat grass, not corn that, by the way, is likely GMO) and given unnecessary synthetic hormones and antibiotics to ensure they produce the most abundant meat products as quickly and efficiently as possible. According to Michael Pollan, “You are what you eat eats, too” so animals raised in such an unhealthy environment in turn produce products that are not as nutritious for you as the local, pastured (or wild caught) alternatives. Not to mention the negative impact these factory farms have on our environment and the inhumane manner in which these animals are being raised.
    InsteadShop your local farmers’ market for humanely raised, pastured animal products. If you are concerned about the higher cost, then just eat less meat. It’s that simple. And when selecting seafood always pick the “wild caught” variety so you know they were raised in their natural environment and eating their natural diet.
  5. Ingredients you would not cook with at home
    Rather than memorizing a complicated list of chemicals to avoid in packaged foods I am going to make this one really easy for you. Don’t buy anything packaged that’s made with ingredients you wouldn’t cook with at home (which are usually items you can’t even pronounce).
    Instead: Stick with simple products made from a handful of pure ingredients or make food yourself from scratch.
  6. Refined oils
    “While olive oil and other pressed oils have been around for millennia,” refined alternatives like shortening, soybean oil, and even canola oil are fairly new on the scene. That’s because they are basically science experiments that were dreamed up in a lab by the food industry. These highly processed vegetable oils are cleaned with chemicalsgenetically modified, and sometimes even hydrogenated so as a result we like to avoid them as much as possible.
    Instead: Stick with traditional cooking fats like butter, olive oil, ghee (refined butter), unrefined coconut oil, and, yes, even pastured lard. As Michael Pollan says, “Innovation in food is bad.”
  7. Pre-flavored packaged products
    As I touched on above there are a wide range of “flavored” products available these days including everything from beverages to yogurts to oatmeal to cream cheese. Trust me, food factories are going to use a lot more sugar, salt, oil, and unrecognizable ingredients than you would use to flavor these foods at home.
    Instead: Buy plain and flavor/sweeten it yourself (naturally). When it comes to drinks squirt some lemon (or other citrus) in your water or sparkling water to kick things up a notch. :)
  8. Imitation foods
    This includes anything that’s trying to pretend to be something it’s not. Like margarine (or vegan “butter”), processed cheese products, imitation crab meat, pancake “syrup,” and “lemonade” powder. Believe it or not there used to be a regulation requiring manufacturers to clearly label foods like these as an “imitation.” But of course these products were looked down upon so it’s no surprise that the ever-so-powerful food industry got that regulation thrown out the window. The bottom line is that imitation foods are a highly processed “fake” version of the real thing.
    Instead: Buy the “real” versions of imitation foods like real butter, real cheese, real crab, or pure maple syrup, and make lemonade with real lemons (not artificial powder!).
  9. Low-fat and fat-free products
    You are off the hook. “Diet” foods are not only more processed (to get the fat out), but they never tasted that good anyway. As it turns out, according to Michael Pollan, “We’ve gotten fat on low-fat products.” And that’s because when they take the fat out of these foods they no longer taste good so they have to add in a bunch of sugar (see #2 above). Binging on sugar and other refined sweeteners is the real issue here…not eating healthy fats like our ancestors have survived on for centuries.
    Instead: Switch to full-fat dairy (including milk!) and avoid low-fat packaged foods all together.
  10. Fast Food
    It’s an amazing feat, but fast food places have somehow managed to screw up the most innocent, wholesome-sounding real food meals like oatmeal, sandwiches, and salads – “Even the salads at McDonald’s are full of high-fructose corn syrup and thickeners made from corn.” So how about we all agree to “vote with our dollars” and avoid fast food joints all together?
    Planning ahead is key when it comes to avoiding fast food restaurants while on the go. Before you leave the house each morning be sure to have all your meals mentally planned out in your head so you aren’t caught off-guard empty handed. And always have some wholesome snacks (like dried fruit, nuts, or Lara Bars) on hand just in case you get in a bind!

What’s on your personal list of foods and ingredients to avoid?

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258 thoughts on “Real Food Tips: 10 Highly Processed Foods to Avoid”

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  1. My son is allergic to dairy and we have made daiya products, tofutti, and follow your heart products a staple in not only his diet but all of ours. Are their products a big no-no?

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi. Many of the vegan products do tend to be pretty highly processed. Just look closely at the labels and look for those that have a short ingredient list without additives and artificial ingredients. I find Dr. Praegar’s products to be a good example in that area.

    1. I think some of the Nakd bars are quite similar – made with dates and cashew nuts – some varieties have more added ingredients (including natural flavours) than others. I’m not sure if they’re organic or not.

  2. Hi

    Really love the article and it really covers what i believe too.

    One query I have is that in the grains section I think you should recommend wholegrain rice as opposed to brown rice as I think brown rice can be aa processed as white.


    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi. Truvia is a blend of stevia and a sugar alcohol. You can find stevia drops that a pure stevia.

    1. The skim milk is highly processed to remove the fat and probably worse things (than the fat) are added to make up for the fat being removed.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. I also live in Matthews and find it at Publix or Fresh Market at Promenade. Whole Foods and Earth Fare are sure bets as well but that is more of a hike. :) Harris Teeter will likely also carry it if you request it.

    1. Hi Rachel! Most people can tolerate canola oil, but it is made from rapeseed. One of the largest GMO produced “food” behind corn, wheat, and soy. This is one of the reasons it is so important to read your food labels. I recommend replacing canola oil with 100% extra virgin olive oil (a trusted brad) or unrefined extra virgin coconut oil.

      My mission is to help people reduce the amount of chemicals they digest everyday by teaching about food and reading food labels. I want people to feel confident that food choices they make in the grocery aisle will enhance their health.


    and here is a bunch morer:

    I have an autoimmune disease and was told to stay way from GMO’s and processed foods by my Hepatoligist doctor. And please you don’t have to be rude and tell people to use common sense – in our heads we are just as in your head you are. It all depends on your perspective. So if you want to make your claims at least be nice about it.

  4. jenn,

    The study you reference was first published in the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology in Sept of 2012 and was retracted by the publication in November of 2013 for good reason. See attached link for more information and please read the comments and criticism from the scientific community regarding the study you mention in the documentary.

    GMO OMG is another scare mongering documentary looking for a problem that does not exist.

  5. Can you show me any, scientific, peer reviewed proof that organic foods are any more nutritious or safer than conventionally raised foods? I would also like to see any scientific evidence you may have that show GMO’s are less safe to eat than conventionally or organically produced foods. Any reported deaths or direct links to disease from GMO food consumption that can be credibly reported ?

    The comment that cattle are often fed unnatural diets of corn and should be fed only grass is misleading to your readers since corn IS a grass. As livestock producers, our business lives and dies on how well we treat our livestock. If we cared for our stock the way many portray us, we would have been out of business a very long time ago.

    Please do yourself and your readers a favor and actually visit a working farm before demonizing a majority of U.S. farmers and ranchers.

    1. There is a documentary out called GMO OMG Is This the End of Real food? Kinda gives you more insight on GMOs and farming in the US verses other countries. There is a scientist that does an experiment involving GMOs on rats fed with grain produced by GMO seeds and they grew large tumors. It really is a fascinating documentary.

      1. That rat study has been discredited and pulled from the publication, as has every study that has ever been published that puts GMO’s in a bad light. GMO’s are the most tested food in our kitchen, and yet Big Organic continues to demonize it while lining their own pockets. The entire GMO OMG movie has been discredited. I hate to say “google it” because everyone looks at articles and articles aren’t facts.

        It’s such a shame that the most promising solution to our food waste issue, nutritional deficits, and just plain feeding hungry people is being demonized by an industry (organic/supplement/bloggers) trying to make a buck. I have no issue with people making a living. But do it honestly, with facts, with integrity.

  6. I found an answer to my question about whether coconut oil is okay. I have the unrefined on the shelf. Now I nedd to look for recipes.

    Question about butter. I checked every brand available in my store. They all say “flavoring agent” on ingredients. Why is that okay?

      1. I looked at every product available. No organic butter.
        I can buy organic lettuce sometimesm and recently carrots and celery. In the summer I can buy organic bell peppers and spinach. I can go to the actual organic lettuce and may or may not get lettuce this month. They will have organic eggs and frozen organic pork.

  7. My question is, if you don’t know much about any of this, is there some very very simple ways to start out with??

  8. Processed foods are like placing bad gas in your vehicle…
    Utmost consumer do not realize that “live food” (unprocessed) has significant vitamins and enzymes that are demolished in their processing. The result is the intake of empty calories with additives, many of which have a long “rap sheet” of adverse effects on the body.

  9. Thank you, I have just been searching for info about
    this topic for ages and yours is the greatest I have discovered so far.
    But, what in regards to the bottom line? Are you certain about the source?

  10. Hi! Do you consider all dairy alternatives to be imitation? We make almost everything from scratch due to food allergies, and earth balance and alternative milks such as soy and coconut are a god-send, and I feel very healthy, if not healthier, than their dairy alternatives. Thanks in advance.

  11. Why is Larabar the only bar you mention (and in more than one place)? And with a link even? Larabar is owned by General Mills, one of the biggest of the food giants out there. There are so many good bars out there. It undermines the message a little to see blatant product promotion of an industry behemoth.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Shannon. Food politics aside, it is Larabar’s ingredient list that gets the thumbs up.

  12. Nice that your site is cleary sponored by Dyson—why should we read anything on this site?

    Articles are not bad but do not like being led to an ad by the sponsor.

  13. Thanks for the article. Since a close friend of mine was dignosed with colon cancer I have been researching a lot on processed food and I have to tell you your blog seems more authentic than anything I have read up in the web so far.

    I was curious what you think on granola bars like the obes from Kelog or Kashi granola bars. I often get them while in a hurry in the morning. Also please make a post on some quick and eas y to make healthy natural recipes :)

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi there, Arun. I think if you take a look at their ingredient labels, you will see some pretty long ingredient lists which contain additives and preservatives. Here are some alternatives: and You can also find store bought Lara Bars as well as other low ingredient bars, you just need to pay close attention to the labels. ~Amy

  14. Is there a nut free alternative out there to Almond flour that I can use without having to alter the recipe (ie: adding more egg/flax gels when subing coconut flour, etc)?

  15. Angela Buckley-Scotson

    Hi I have had fibro for 20+ years and suffer every day. I also have T2 diabetes taking injections 2x per day and tablets 3x per day. Just recently my son has asked me to follow the PALEO diet which follows the same rules as above. I have lost 2.5 stones in weight and feel a lot more energetic and better well being in general. Which in turn has reduced my cholesterol(HDL & LDL) & helped my diabetes. I can’t say for certain if it has reduced my pain but it has defiantly helped me to be more mobile therefore cope a lot better about it.

    1. I’ve always heard that people who eat junk feel like junk & people with fibromyalgia who eat like junk REALLY feel like junk. Keep up the efforts, it’s worth it to feel better!

  16. What is your opinion on Stevia and Monk Fruit as sweetening agents?
    I feel better since I have switched from other artificial sweeteners to these.

  17. I love how people always say “fast food” restaurants to avoid… The truth is all restaurants are buying from the same suppliers… Unless it says “local or fresh” it comes from a factory farm and most of the time the vegetables have been frozen, unless your getting a salad….

    Do just try and eat out as little as possible. Unless you live in a city and have more selections.

  18. Can anyone help re 2 points please:

    1.) There are comments saying that brown rice is a no-go because it has high arsenic levels…I feel we can’t do right for doing wrong?! If I follow all the advice I will literally have no food-groups left that I am ‘allowed’ to eat! Help?!?!

    2.) My daughter is highly allergic to dairy and soy (as in – the protein, so absolutely no derivatives allowed at all.) We buy “pure” sunflower spread to use instead of butter on toast – obviously this isn’t the ‘real thing’…is this OK though? My little one hates coconut oil on toast (and other oils)…we started to use jam instead but then the sugar content worries me…again…there is no right answer!!

    Thank you!!!!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Louise. You will need to make the substitutions that work for your family and the allergies you need to accommodate. That is fine. How about substituting quinoa for the brown rice? Quinoa is my go-to now. I saute it in olive oil and garlic before adding the water. It is quite good. Also, imported brown Basmati rice and brown rice not grown in the southern US are said to be better/cleaner choices. ~Amy

      1. I never thought about sautéing the quinoa like that before adding the water! Great idea, thanks.

  19. I feel kind of stuck, because no matter what I try to do to make mine and my family’s eating better for us, health-wise, there is ALWAYS something out there saying how bad it is! It’s all very overwhelming, and the droves of clones that tend to make me think of the zombie hordes that say “yeeesss… yeessss… veeegaaaan…” and whatnot (no offense to vegans, that’s just the term I happened to pick) do tend to make those of us who have to look at finances and available cooking time just as much as nutrition. I work full time, am attending college, and have a teenage daughter highly active in school and dance to run around; grinding my own flour and inspecting my corn for germs is unfortunately second to grabbing a bag of flour and a bag of frozen corn. =/
    I applaud those of you who have the time and ability and means to do these things; I only hope that you don’t think less of those of us who can’t. Literally, can’t.

  20. I share Savannah’s concern about brown rice. We eat only white rice, though my husband sometimes “splurges” with brown rice because he prefers it.

  21. I would try to avoid brown rice since recently there have been concerning levels of arsenic in them. The husk hold most of the arsenic so white rice has less arsenic levels. Organic brown rice sold at Whole Foods was on top of the list

    And we avoid fish entirely now because of concern of heavy metals and radiation. Reality is, our world is polluted and traditional farming practices is mostly abandoned and unprocessed whole food is now a luxury.

  22. Can you switch out white flour for whole wheat in recipes cup for cup or does it depend on what you are making… about for muffins and pizza dough?

    1. I find that I need more wheat flour but I think it is because I grind it fresh as needed so it had not packed down. The only way to really know is to experiment. I would add slightly less and see what the texture is, then add more if needed. We have found that most recipes will take wheat flour and still taste just fine.

  23. I appreciate this article. I try to keep my kids and I away from stuff like this! Unfortunately in this day and age, it’s hard :( But I do have to say, living on a beef cattle ranch, you do realize there’s not enough pasture in the whole world for everyone to eat “grass-fed beef”, right? Yes, I hate GMO corn. But I feel like a lot of people don’t understand (I mean TRULY understand) how farms work. On that note, farmers/ranchers are not generally rich or well-paid people. Keep this in mind as you enjoy your steak. Take care of the people who feed you, don’t take them for granted!

  24. Hey there! Would you mind if I share your blog with my myspace
    group? There’s a lot of folks that I think would
    really enjoy your content. Please let me know.
    Many thanks

  25. No one is looking down on you because you can’t afford organic food. Yes, it is expensive. And it’s a shame that GMO crops are so prevalent. It sounds like you’re actually defending a company like Monsanto though. GMO’s may not make you feel I’ll today, but over time forcing your body to try and dispose of these toxins will have negative effects. But eating real food just means that. Cooking everyday for your family. Eating fresh and not processed items. Eating a non organic apple is still better for you than not eating that apple at all. Here’s a link to an article about how far $20 can go at the grocery store.

    1. The article you linked to is fast food vs conventional real food. None of the meats are local and many of the products do not meet the guidelines listed. The difference between the fast food cart and “unprocessed” cart is vast, but to Mandy’s point, $20 would only buy three lbs of locally raised meat. Completely “real” food is just not an option for so many due to cost.
      Mandy, start where you can. 100% compliance is not required to see the benefits. Our family does the best we can. There was a real food budget challenge where Lisa spent only $125 per week, but even that amount is about 40% more than my family aims to end each week. We also have some allergies to work around (wheat, dairy, egg and soy) so we have to be realistic about what works for us.

  26. I understand where everyone is coming from – but don’t you think some go a little overboard? I mean, this is just my opinion and I am pretty sure there are others that think this way as well, but shouldn’t you not only put your family’s health as a top priority but what about your family’s financial security? Where I live, organic and free range stuff is VERY expensive. I have tried to cut out a lot of processed stuff but sometimes you just cant afford the more “healthy” counterpart. Do we get looked down upon for it? And isn’t one of the reasons that they started to try and come up with these “lab experiements” for food was to make it more affordable to the general public as well? I’m just saying…I get where everyone is coming from but please don’t look down on people that can’t afford to feed their families 100% organic free range stuff. Encourage them to find healthier things yes but please don’t look down on us for taking care of our families. Again, this is just my opinion…

    1. It’s supply & demand!! If more people would DEMAND this food the SUPPLY would go up & costs go down!!! So many people complain about cost they are not looking at the big picture here!! Do you want to be sick & save $2 on something or do you want to pay more & be healthier??? Do you want to pay for healthcare costs which are much more than these food costs??

  27. I cringe when I see people using Splenda or Equal. I remember how I was misled on those sugar substitutes and just ended up in a cycle of sugar addiction. Recently, I have been using raw honey when I feel I want a sweeter taste and it is quite satisfying.

  28. When people ask me what they can do to start feeling better, losing weight and gaining more energy I always recommend cutting our processed foods. I think when I started to do it, I noticed better results. When I went back to processed foods, I could distinguish how horrible that food makes me feel after I eat it. This was a wake up call for me and it made even more sense going forward to eliminate processed foods or at least strive for 80% whole and 20% processed rule.