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How to break up with highly processed foods

Jan. 19, 2024—Ultraprocessed foods are a mainstay in many U.S. diets. But eating these kinds of foods has been linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels.

What are ultraprocessed foods?

Processed foods include foods that have been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or fortified in some way.

Many foods are processed, but not all of them are unhealthy. It can depend on how heavily processed the foods are, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). For example, canned and frozen vegetables are typically minimally processed. Indeed, AICR considers them part of a cancer-preventive diet.

Ultraprocessed foods, on the other hand, have been changed in ways that remove or reduce good-for-you nutrients like fiber and vitamins. Fats, sugar and salt may be added—turning an otherwise healthy food into a high-calorie, low-nutrient food.

That's why a box of brown rice, with its natural fiber and nutrient content left in place, is considered minimally processed. But a box of seasoned or flavored white rice that includes added salt, fats or sugar is considered ultraprocessed.

Tips for healthier choices

If you want to cut back on how much heavily processed food you eat, become a student of food labels and try to do more food prep and cooking at home. Keep this advice in mind:

  • Don't shy away from minimally processed foods that are pre-prepped for your convenience. These include things like bagged spinach, pre-cut vegetables and roasted nuts. Such convenience foods can help you make the transition to eating less processed fare.
  • Added sugar is any sugar that doesn't naturally occur in the food and has been added manually. To determine if added sugars are a major ingredient in a food, check the food label. See if added sugars are among the first two or three ingredients listed. They might be listed as sugar, maltose, brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, honey or fruit concentrate.
  • Processed foods are major contributors of sodium in our diets because salt is often added to extend shelf life. Most canned vegetables, soups and sauces have added salt. Choose food labeled as "no salt added," "low-sodium" or "reduced-sodium" to lower the amount of salt you're getting from processed foods.
  • Hankering for some chicken? Skip the frozen, fried chicken meal. Instead, buy a prepared roast chicken and some frozen brown rice and frozen mixed vegetables to make your own, healthier meal.
  • Choose foods minimally processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness. These include canned tomatoes, frozen fruits and vegetables, and canned tuna.
  • Be aware that many ready-to-eat foods are more highly processed. Think crackers, granola and deli meat.

Fresh produce is the ultimate in unprocessed food. But it's also perishable. Learn how to make sure your vegetables stay fresh until you're ready to eat them.


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