What Are Processed Foods and How to Avoid Processed Foods?

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What Are Processed Foods and How to Avoid Processed Foods?

March 10, 2016 at 4:00 PM

According to a new report published yesterday in the medical journal BMJ Open, “ultra-processed foods” account for almost 60% of all calories consumed in the United States. Defined by the study as those containing “several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular, flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives,” these ultra-processed foods contribute 89.7% of all added sugars consumed, with a direct correlation between increased ultra-processed food intake and added sugar intake. According to the study, over 80% of Americans get more than 10% of their daily calories from added sugars, exceeding the limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

While it’s not news that Americans consume a great deal of processed foods, these numbers are sobering in that they shed light on just how many ultra-processed foods are consumed in the country (breads, cakes, TV dinners, soft drinks, pizza, et cetera) – and how much sugar. Given the correlation between sugary diets and heart disease (not to mention the rise in type 2 diabetes and obesity) this should concern us all.

Unfortunately, unless you have the luxury of leaving everything behind to live off the land there’s probably not much hope of avoiding processed or even ultra-processed foods entirely. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to avoid the worst foods on the supermarket shelves and eat a healthful diet that limits ultra-processed foods and puts you in the 20% of Americans that don’t exceed the WHO’s sugar recommendations. Let’s take a look at some processed foods that have a surprising amount of added sugars to avoid, and some tips to eat smarter.

The Sneakiest Sources of Added Sugar in Common Processed Foods

Granola Bars and Granola Cereals

Granola might sound like a good idea, and often it’s marketed as a natural alternative to an Egg McMuffin, but you might not realize that even small granola bars can contain up to 25 grams of sugar; that’s the same as a standard chocolate bar! Just a half cup of many granola cereals can contain between 10 – 15 grams. That’s almost 4 teaspoons per serving!

Ketchup, Condiments, and Salad Dressings

Even though you might not think of it as a sweet food, a tablespoon of ketchup contains about an entire teaspoon of sugar – think about that next time you get an order of fries! Barbecue sauce and salad dressings like French, Russian, and Thousand Island can pack on 2 teaspoons of added sugar for every 2 tablespoon serving. Next time you’re having a salad or French fries, reach for the vinegar.


Yogurt naturally contains sugar in the form of lactose, but flavored yogurts common in supermarkets are often over-sweetened to compensate for the natural tartness. Fruit, honey, vanilla, and other flavored yogurts should be a red flag, with as many as 30 grams of added sugars – more than 7 tablespoons.

Frozen Dinners

No one looks to TV dinners as a paragon of healthy living, but not everyone might expect to get a healthy dose of added sugar from theirs. A leading frozen turkey breast dinner contains 5 ½ teaspoons of sugars; a 300 calorie serving of frozen Asian-inspired pineapple chicken might seem like a good idea, but one leading brand’s offering contains almost 5 teaspoons of sugar – 19 grams. Some popular brands contain as many as 40 grams of added sugars!

Be wary of frozen dinners with desserts like sugar-laden brownie and cobblers, as well as those that market themselves as “healthy” by cutting back on fat and calories while loading up on added sugars to make up for the lost taste.

Dried Fruit

Dried cranberries or raisins sound healthy (it’s fruit!) but even just a third of a cup can contain a whopping 24 grams of sugar – that’s 6 teaspoons. Think about that next time you’re mindlessly noshing on a bag of trail mix. While we’re on the subject of fruit, be on the lookout for fruit juices and, even worse, fruit “drinks” with enough added sugars to make them no different than a can of soda.

Tips on How to Avoid Sugary Processed Foods in the Grocery Store

Shop Around the Outside of the Store

Usually the best things to eat, like fresh produce, meats, dairy, and minimally processed frozen foods like vegetables are situated around the outside of the grocery store. Odds are you won’t be able to avoid heading to the inner aisles completely, and it bears noting that not everything in the middle is bad, but if you try to keep the bulk of your shopping to the perimeter you should be able to minimize the worst stuff.

Make a List and Stick to It

Healthy grocery shopping, like so many other things in life, is a lot easier if you plan ahead. Make a shopping list of the groceries you need, and enter the store with a mission to collect them and leave. Browsing the aisles and grabbing whatever looks good at the time makes it much more likely to make decision that are less than ideal.

Read Labels – Or Better Yet Buy Food without One

Don’t wait until you get something home before you look at the nutrition and ingredients label, make a habit of doing it in the store so you can avoid foods with too much fat, sugar, or ingredients like high fructose corn syrup. Of course, if a food doesn’t have a nutrition label, like fresh produce and meat, all the better.

For more information on diet, nutrition, weight loss and more in Connecticut, get in touch with Medical Weight Loss Solutions in Wallingford.

Tags: Added Sugars, Grocery Shopping
Category: Healthy Eating Tips

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