5 Ways To Know If Your Food Is Processed

When I first decided to cut out all processed food I distinctly remember trying to google “list of processed food” and feeling really confused by the lack of answers. So today my hope is to provide some direction for those in the same boat because, after loads of research and practice, avoiding processed food (thankfully) becomes a lot less complicated. And, honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way now that we’ve gotten the hang of it!

I do want to say one quick thing though about using the word “processed.” Cooking is technically a form of processing, or changing your food, so what we’re really looking at today is how to know if your food is HIGHLY processed. If you don’t want your food to be processed at all then you should look into a raw diet. :)

Also, if you’d like to get your hands on some new unprocessed recipes that are both quick and easy to make AND only use common ingredients you probably already have on hand, be sure to reserve your copy of my new cookbook! Preordering will guarantee you the lowest price between now and publication next month, and in the meantime you’ll also get my free bonus eBook with some easy after school snack ideas.

5 ways to know if your food is processed on 100 Days of Real Food

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Your Packaged Food Is Highly Processed If It Contains:

  1. Ingredients you would not cook with at home.
    Some people like to avoid ingredients they can’t pronounce, but I honestly like this guideline better and it’s just as easy to follow. If you wouldn’t cook with it in your own kitchen (hello, maltodextrin and high-fructose corn syrup) then consider it a red flag that the product is likely highly processed.
  2. Artificial additives.
    I have long lists of why I avoid artificial dyes and sweeteners, but the reality is you’re not going to find these additives in any food that is truly “real” and wholesome. So this is another easy guideline to help you eliminate a lot of junk easily.
  3. Any form of refined, added sugar.
    Sugar itself is not the devil, it’s the quantity in which it’s consumed. And it’s becoming a bigger and bigger issue because these days sugar is in an insane amount of packaged, processed foods (including everything from crackers and bread to salad dressing and marinades). I do treat myself to desserts with refined sugar on occasion, but I’m talking maybe once a week. Consistently consuming more than your recommended daily allowance is where we can get into trouble.
  4. Refined grains (i.e. “wheat” without the word “whole”)
    Refined grains boast a longer shelf life and more mild taste, but this comes with a sacrifice. When grains are no longer whole it basically means they’ve been processed to the point where most of the good nutrients have been stripped away. That’s why manufacturers are required to “enrich” refined flours – it’s an attempt to try to add back in what might be missing – but, since manufacturers simply cannot recreate nature, it’s best (and less processed!) to just stick with the original whole grain instead. More on grains here.
  5. More than 5 ingredients
    This rule was created in an effort to draw the line somewhere when it comes to packaged food (not recipes you make yourself!). Sure, you can probably find a decent trail mix with 6 ingredients, but this guideline is a great rule of thumb to keep things from getting out of hand.

Are there any other high priorities you would add to this list?

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  3. I look for the common allergens on the food labels, especially since my husband had to cut out dairy. If it’s something that shouldn’t contain milk but it does, I just put it back. It’s kind of a “what is that even doing in there?” game, but it’s another easy way to tell if I should be avoiding something.

  4. Whole foods carries freshly ground peanut butter that peanuts is the only ingredient. And it is cheaper and healthier than the plastic jars.

  5. I like to tell my kid that if you’re going to eat crap, it’s better to eat homemade crap.
    Certain things are such a hassle to make that you’re very likely to buy them processed: pasta and cheese are two that pop into mind. Other things are barely more work to make from scratch than to use a mix or buy made: cakes for example (you still add eggs and oil; why not just mix the flour and sugar too?)
    The added sugar is really bad. Living in France, where I cook almost everything from scratch, I really taste the difference when I am in the U.S. Things are so extra-sweet. This article from Prevention magazine gives 57 little-known names for sugar: http://www.prevention.com/food/healthy-eating-tips/the-57-names-of-sugar

    1. I really appreciate this response and I’m totally going to use that quote with my kids from now on – If you’re going to eat crap, it’s better to eat homemade crap. Spot on!

    1. I just looked at 2 different powdered peanut butters and it looks like they have added sugar and fat – so I would say it is processed. Natural peanut butter – peanuts and salt are the only ingredients.

      1. The brand I use doesn’t have additional ingredients but it says it’s a low-fat peanut butter, so it sounds like the fat has been partially removed. Does that make it processed?

      2. Low fat, low carb, low anything is just a marketing game. Theses aren’t actually better for you. They are actually worse most of the time! Same with diet soda(soda in general is just terrible). Because when they remove these things to fit the rules of your “diet” the food tastes bland! So what do they do? Dump in sugar! When you consume too much sugar without the fiber, For instance in fruit, yes an apple is sugary but it has the right balance of fiber to balance it out. But if you have too much sugar intake that sugar gets turned directly into fat, and thus diet sodas, low fat foods, etc are the worst of anything! Sugar is added into everything. Bread, tomato sauce, snack food, etc. The food industry has fooled a nation into thinking they are being healthy buying “low fat” items! Its outrageous! And remember sugar isnt always called sugar:

        Names for added sugars on labels include:
        Brown sugar
        Corn sweetener
        Corn syrup
        Fruit juice concentrates
        High-fructose corn syrup
        Invert sugar
        Malt sugar
        Raw sugar
        Sugar molecules ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose)


      3. I bought PB Fit and the ingredient list just states peanuts, salt, and sugar. There is only 2 grams of sugar per serving though, so I feel like it’s a good one to buy!