Some tips on avoiding highly processed foods

Hopefully by now, especially if you have been paying attention to this blog, you are reading food labels before buying anything from the grocery store. And as a reminder, the section of the label that you should be reading is the “ingredients” …I am not talking about the nutrition facts! One of my favorite guidelines or “food rules” from Michael Pollan is to “avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients.” How easy is that? Well, it is pretty easy although there are a few exceptions to consider.

For starters, a long list of ingredients for a recipe you are making does not apply to this rule. Also, some foods that are technically considered “junk food” or “treats” like potato chips (potatoes, oil, salt) and even ice cream (milk, cream, sugar, vanilla) may only have 3 or 4 ingredients.  But that doesn’t mean you have the green light to chow down. Even though some foods like chips and ice cream may not be highly processed, they should still be considered a treat for a special occasion…and that most certainly does not mean eating them every day!

Another point to consider is that the ingredient list shouldn’t contain anything that is “unfamiliar [or] unpronounceable.” You basically want to eat items made with things that any normal person would keep in their pantry. Do you know anyone that cooks with xantham gum or maltodextrin? I don’t think so. And even though you can pronounce high-fructose corn syrup and you can buy an ingredient called “corn syrup” you definitely want to try to avoid foods containing that ingredient as well.

I hope this somewhat simple guideline makes things easier on your future food-shopping trips. Although I do have to say, I think the easiest guideline to follow is buying as many foods as you can that don’t even have a label at all.


For more tips check out this list:


Posts may contain affiliate links. If you purchase a product through an affiliate link, your cost will be the same but 100 Days of Real Food will automatically receive a small commission. Your support is greatly appreciated and helps us spread our message!

About The Author

12 thoughts on “Some tips on avoiding highly processed foods”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. I Sam finally REALLY getting into ingredients reading and am having a difficult time with milk. My son was allergic to cow’s milk from 1-2 years old and still has weather related issues with eczema. I’m afraid to even try cow’s milk again. He’s been drinking almond milk. I don’t like the ingredients, guar gum being one of them. Do you know of an almond milk that has added calcium but not the bad ingredients list? Thanks in advance!

  2. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

    Hi Franki. Here is an extensive post on fats and oils that should help: Regarding coconut oil, you may need to get on the phone with some of the producers. Tropical Traditions, I believe, was once labeled as not manufactured with tree nuts but I’ve not recently verified that. You can also reach out to Spectrum and Nutiva and see what you can find out. ~Amy

  3. I have read that expeller pressed Canola Oil was a healthy oil to use. What do you think? We cannot use Coconut oil because I can’t find one that doesn’t say “bottled in a factory that bottles nut oils” and we have a severe nut allergy in our family.

  4. Perfect subject…I was just reading a recipe that is gluten-free and calls for xanthan gum. Question is what can I use in place of it since we do not have gluten issues. If I switch out the flour will I be able to go without the xanthan gum?

  5. LOL! Actually, I DO bake with xanthan gum! For people who are gluten-intolerant, xanthan or guar gum are necessary to bind gluten-free baked goods together! Without a gum, they can look and smell and even taste good, but they will crumble into dust with the first bite!

    I am really enjoying reading through your 2 challenges, and (despite the xanthan gum) plan to incorporate many of your ideas into our family’s diet (I’m the only one with the multiple food allergies!).

  6. Question about corn syrup – so I get the no HFCS part, but is plain corn syrup ok (in moderation)? And corn startch is totally different, right? It’s all so confusing….

    And I have used xantham gum before – if you ever bake gluten free from scratch it is a necessity or everything is flat and hard! But otherwise I have never found a need for it! :)

    Also, how sad is it that I had to think about the line “buying as many foods as you can that don’t even have a label at all.” I was thinking “don’t all foods have to have a label?” until I realized that produce doesn’t! Guess my brain isn’t quite thinking this way totally!

    1. Good questions! You got me thinking over here too (just like you were about foods w/o labels!) about all the different corn products. First of all corn syrup is definitely still considered a sweetener although the levels of fructose are lower than you will find in HFCS. Think of it as being no better than good ol’ white sugar though…you definitely want to use it in moderation. Also, corn syrup is actually made from corn starch (it is just further processed with acids or enzymes to make it a sweetener).
      In regards to corn starch by itself though, it is basically the corn version of white flour meaning that it is made only from the endosperm of the corn. It has no nutritional value and is therefore just empty calories. There is also corn meal which is sometimes stone or water-ground (which is the old fashioned method) and includes some of the hull and the germ in addition to the endosperm so it is more nutritious than the alternative (like whole-wheat flour). You have to work a little harder to find “water-ground” cornmeal though because most of what is sold today is milled by steel rollers that almost completely removes the husk and germ (the nutritious part). I hope that helps! The diagram of the wheat kernel posted in the bread article might help.
      Also, what you said about xantham gum is funny because I recently noticed it on a grocery store shelf and was surprised to see it there since it is typically thought of as one of many hard-to-pronounce “additives” we should be avoiding. Not having to deal with gluten-free foods myself I now understand why it is sold as an ingredient. That doesn’t mean it should be in a host of other foods (that aren’t gluten-free) sitting on our grocery store shelves though!