Last week, a study published in the journal BMJ Open revealed that a whopping 60% of calories in the average American’s daily diet come from “ultra-processed” foods, which are pretty much exactly what they sound like: processed foods that contain additives—like hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors, and emulsifiers—with long names you don’t recognize.
The researchers also found that these ultra-processed foods account for 90% of the added sugar we consume, increasing our risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Yikes. In an interview with HealthDay News, lead study author Euridice Martinez Steele stressed the importance of cleaning up our diets. “There is one relatively simple way to avoid excessive added sugar—not replacing real food with ultra-processed food and drink products,” she said.
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Luckily, creating homemade versions of your favorite treats is easier than you might think. And you don’t need to swear off conveniently-packaged snacks altogether, says Health‘s contributing nutrition editor Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD. You just need to read the labels carefully: “My take is, if the ingredient list looks like a recipe you could have made in your own kitchen, you’re on the right track.”
Here, Sass points out the six worst ultra-processed foods in your pantry right now, and healthier versions you can buy—or make at home—instead.
The most notorious offenders, says Sass, are brands that contain artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives. (That means anything neon-orange is out.) Your best bet is a basic kettle chip with just three simple ingredients: potatoes, olive or sunflower oil, and salt. Other good options include organic blue corn chips and popcorn, which is low in calories, high in fiber, and packed with antioxidants. Or better yet, go the DIY route. Baked kale chips are easy to make, as are oven-roasted sweet potato chips. Follow the the step-by-step instructions in the video below.
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Packaged snack cakes
Those plastic-wrapped cakes that seem to last for
months years in your pantry are packed with sugar and preservatives (hence their longevity). Whipping up your own sweet treats is a better option, says Sass. You can use a nutrient-rich alternative to white flour, such as chickpea or almond flour, and also cut back on sugar and butter with healthier substitutions. Sass recommends replacing half of the sugar in the recipe with pureed fruit (mashed bananas and date paste both work well); and swapping each tablespoon of butter with a half tablespoon of avocado. (Check out this video for more smart baking swaps.)
Craving a sweet fix, stat? “I love to take fresh fruit—berries, slices of pears, whatever is in season—and warm them in a skillet with a little lemon water,” Sass says. “Then I’ll make homemade crumble with almond butter, oats, and cinnamon and sprinkle it on top of the fruit.”
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You already know to avoid ultra-processed white bread in favor of fiber-rich whole grain breads that offer a slew of good-for-you perks. But picking the right loaf can be tricky because even healthy-seeming varieties can contain additives: “Bread is one of those foods where reading the ingredient list is really very important,” Sass explains. In general, she recommends looking for a whole grain or gluten-free, or even grain-free bread that doesn’t have any artificial additives or preservatives. When in doubt, check the frozen foods section, Sass says. It makes sense: Some of the healthiest breads “need to be frozen because they don’t contain any preservatives,” she explains.
Yes, you’ve heard it before. But seriously, it’s time to ditch your diet soda stash once and for all. Besides the fact that diet soda has zero nutritional value, it contains artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose, and has been linked to headaches, depression, and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. If you can’t get used to plain old H2O, opt for sparkling or flavored water. “Just be sure to choose one that contains only carbonated water and natural flavors,” says Sass.
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Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a minimally-processed version of pre-made pizza. The best alternative, says Sass, is making your own dough. She bakes a light, flaky crust from chopped up cauliflower that pleases even diehard pizza fans,Â and loads it up with veggies and fresh greens. This video shows how simple it is so make your own cauliflower crust pizza.
First, the bad news on candy: Most of the movie theater brands you know and love contain high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors. But the good news, is there are better options out there. “Seventy percent dark chocolate is a great alternative to candy,” Sass says, noting that it’s a good source of magnesium and antioxidants, which can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol. For a bite-sized treat, she likes Dagoba Organic Chocolate Chocodrops ($8; amazon.com). “Some of my clients keep a bag in the freezer and grab a small handful of the frozen chips when they’re craving something sweet,” she says. And if you prefer gummy candies, Sass recommends a German brand called Seitenbacher Gummi Fruit ($20 for a dozen 3-oz. bags; amazon.com). “Their sweetness comes from real fruit juices, such as apple and beetroot,” she says.