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. Robin Otterstetter

    I wondering what qualifies as processed meat. I have Columbia turkey bacon and costco turkey jerky both without nitrates. Where would these fall or do you have a list of processed meats to avoid?

  2. I thought the same of Stevie at first. But like anything, you will adjust. I don’t notice the aftertaste at all anymore. But, conversely, if you’re going to acquire a new taste, why NOT just go sweetener free! Hmm, I may take my own advice and try it for a couple weeks!

  3. How do I avoid sweetener as a diabetic type 1-I cannot use syrup, honey ir real sugar as it would put my blood sugar level up too much and I cant drink rea without sweetness of some kind and stevia or truvia have a bitter taste I find canderel to be most tasting of real sugar,although its chemicals it doesn’t move my sugars up!

    1. Holly, I am in the same predicament.. Type I diabetes here. My mother who is also Type 1 is also having the same trouble. We both brew kombucha but she is finding that even when she lets it go really tart, it will run her sugar up. Even drinking just small amounts.

      1. Stevia’s taste overwhelms everything even in the smallest amount of has an aftertaste worse than aspartame. I had to quit sugar and assumed Stevia would help but ut forced me to learn to live without sweetner. I’ve adjusted.

    2. You don’t need to worry about it. No study has ever been done showing that artificial sweeteners cause health issues (at least none that have not had to be retracted later). Use them in moderation. Don’t sweat it.

  4. As a fan of Stouffers and artificial sweeteners – I realized how much “stuff” I must be ingesting. My daughter suggested I sign up for 10 days and see how it might work for me.

  5. Hi, I am wondering what your take is in instances of food allergies? My son was off the top 8 allergens due to food allergies. We have recently brought in eggs but the others are still out. The vegan spreads are one concession we need to make. But what kinds of foods/meals do you recommend for someone who is off many foods? We do lots of whole meats, fruits and veggies. Just curious because I always see stuff about peanut butter, cheese, milk crackers etc on your lunch boxes and diet. But we can’t do those.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. We have lots of readers and even team members with various food allergies and sensitivities. We encourage everyone to make the adjustments which are necessary to work for your family. I don’t do dairy or gluten and have to work around that. It is all very doable with a bit of trial and error.