Processed foods

High fructose corn syrup, sodium, artificial colors, artificial flavors, trans fats … these could all be lurking in your processed foods. Is that really what you want to be putting in your body? Some foods are so full of chemicals they don’t even resemble natural foods any more. In fact, even calling them food seems like a stretch.

Some processing is done to enhance flavor or color. Some processing extends shelf live. Some processing is even as simple as chopping and washing foods for convenience (think bagged spinach or lettuce). Not all processing is bad. If buying pre-chopped veggies for your snack or frozen fruit for your smoothie will help you eat more fruits and vegetables, then go for it! Some processing, such as simple canning or freezing, can help you enjoy fruits and vegetables year round. The key is to look for minimally processed foods that do not contain a lot of added sugars, salt, fat or chemicals. (1)

Beware of added sugar, salt and fats! According to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, “A healthy eating pattern limits: Saturated fats and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium.” Processed foods can be serious culprits in contributing these undesirable ingredients. Some of the most processed foods include: snack foods, baked goods, cereals, jarred sauces and dressings and ready-to-eat canned and frozen foods. Check the labels carefully for:

High fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, invert sugar, malt syrup, fruit juice concentrate and most words ending in -ose (dextroxe, maltose, fructose, sucrose, glucose) are all different types of sugar. Check out a product’s ingredient list and look for added sugars. If they are at the top of the list, you may want to re-think that product. Also, compare total grams of sugar when choosing between products, and go for the unsweetened or less sugary options when possible.

The salt shaker isn’t the biggest source of sodium in most people’s diets. About 3/4 of most American’s sodium intake comes from processed foods. Canned vegetables, soups, frozen dinners and snack foods are all big contributors to our sodium intake. Look for “unsalted,” “no added salt,” “low sodium,” or “reduced sodium” on labels. Rinsing your canned foods before you eat them can also significantly reduce the sodium content.

Trans fat is the most unhealthful type of fat you can eat, and its main sources are: baked goods, snack foods, refrigerated doughs, stick margarines and coffee creamers. Check the amount of trans fat listed on the label, and try to choose foods that contain 0 grams. Double check your labels though – if a food has less than .5 g trans fat, the manufacturer can legally put 0g of trans fats on the label, but you may still be getting some of the dangerous ingredient. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils = trans fats, so try to avoid foods with partially hydrogenated oils listed in the ingredients. Trans fats can contribute to increased LDL and decreased HDL cholesterol in your body, which increase your risk for heart disease.

Try to limit the questionable chemicals: If you can’t pronounce it, you should probably limit it. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), sulfur dioxide, potassium bromate, sodium nitrites and nitrates are a few of the chemicals commonly used to preserve food. Artificial sweeteners include acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, stevia and sucralose. Artificial food colorings are: blue #1, #2, red dye #3, red#40, yellow #6 and yellow tartrazine. These chemicals are considered safe by the FDA, but some of them are controversial. In my opinion, less is better when it comes to chemicals, so I try to limit them.

Here’s what it comes down to: whole, natural foods are best. When choosing processed foods, try to go with the most minimally processed option. Look for shorter ingredient lists, and lists that contain whole food ingredients, without all of the extra stuff that you don’t want.


  • Fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Plain frozen fruits and vegetables.


  • Frozen fruits and vegetables with added sauces or flavorings that contain sugar, fat or salt.


  • Whole grains. High fiber carbohydrates.


  • Highly refined and processed carbohydrate foods, such as: sugary breakfast cereals; refined pastas and bread products; packaged chips, cakes and cookies.


  • Foods canned in water with no added salt or sugar.


  • Foods canned in syrup. Canned foods with a high sodium content.


  • Fresh/frozen meat and protein sources without added coloring, flavoring, sodium and preservatives.


  • Processed meats such as deli meats with nitrites and nitrates, hot dogs and bacon. Pre-made fish sticks, chicken nuggets and other meat products with long ingredient lists.


  • Fresh dressings and sauces.


  • Jarred varieties with a lot of added salt, sugar, fat and chemicals.


  • Water, sparkling water, coconut water (with no added sugar), organic milk and nut milks, unsweetened coffee and tea.


  • Sodas, juices, other high sugar drinks or drinks with artificial ingredients.

Avoid these foods for a healthier heart. Harvard Health Website.

Artificial sweeteners: sugar-free, but at what cost? Harvard Health Website.


Processed foods: what’s ok, what to avoid. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Website. Accessed Oct. 4, 2016.

Godman H. Healthy, convenient meals on the go: Yes, you can. Harvard Health Website. Oct. 7, 2015.

Lehman S. Are All Processed Foods Unhealthy? VeryWell website. Accessed Oct. 4, 2016.

Jen Kim, RDN

About Jen Kim, RDN

Jennifer is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). She completed her Bachelor’s of Science degree at the University of Illinois, and holds a Master’s Degree in Business Administration (MBA) from San Diego State University. Jennifer also has a Certification in Adult Weight Management. She has worked in hospitals as a Clinical Dietitian, done obesity research and worked as a Corporate Dietitian for a national weight loss company. Jennifer is passionate about helping people live healthier lives. She believes in a balanced approach to nutrition – where all foods can fit – centered around a natural, plant-based diet. Jen lives in San Diego with her husband and two boys – where she enjoys playing soccer and tennis, hiking, playing on the beach, playing board games and shooting pool.

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