What is processed food?
Which processed foods should you avoid? Registered nutritionists Nicola Shubrook and Dr Frankie Phillips share 10 foods to swap for healthier alternatives
When we’re busy or don’t know what to cook, it can be easier to reach for a pre-prepared supermarket meal, thinking it may be a healthy option, but often, these types of foods are ultra processed, which can mean they're high in sugar, salt or unhealthy fats such as artificial trans fats. A processed food means that it's been altered in some way during the preparation, such as freezing, canning, baking or drying. While not all processed foods are bad for us, some of the more highly or 'ultra' processed variations should be minimised in the diet.
Here, we look at what processed food includes and whether all processed food can be considered unhealthy. We also list some of the worst offenders, and suggest healthier alternatives.
What is processed food?
Processing methods include washing, chopping, pickling, smoking, heat treatments such as pasteurising, fermentation, freezing, packaging and the addition of ingredients, which may change the characteristics of the flavour, shelf-life and even nutritional content of food. While processed foods often have a bad press, many of the processes have been used for centuries.
What is ultra-processed food?
Ultra-processed food is characterised as ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products manufactured mostly from multiple ingredients usually combined with additives, or ‘industrial formulations’, by which flavour, sugar, fats or chemical preservatives are added. This can include confectionery, fried snacks, processed meats, cakes and biscuits. A 2020 study concluded that ultra-processed foods are prevalent in diets worldwide, and that the consumption of these foods offers no beneficial outcomes. In fact, of the 43 studies reviewed, 39 of them found at least one adverse health coutcome when ultra-processed foods were consumed.
Should families cut back on processed food?
In the UK. we seem to eat a lot of processed food. In fact, it’s estimated that over 56% of the total calories that the average UK person consumes is from processed foods and that this was higher in children and adolescents. The UK also buys more processed foods that those in Europe. If you look in the supermarkets, there are hundreds of ready-to-go meals and convenience foods lining supermarket shelves and freezers. But processed and convenience foods cover a wide range of foods, and not all of them are ‘bad’ for your family’s health.
Is processed food unhealthy?
While there's not a problem with including some processed foods as part of a balanced diet, there is growing concern that ultra-processed foods contain a lot of added salt, sugar and fat, and are often low in fibre. In one recent study, researchers calculated that for each 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods eaten, there could be a 14% higher risk of early death.
A 2018 study also found a positive association between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and body fat during childhood and adolescence.
Another study questioned whether the rise in ultra-processed food is to blame for the obesity epidemic. In this study, researchers compared the obesity rates in a country with the amount of ultra-processed foods eaten and found that the greater the availability of ultra-processed foods in a country, the higher the rate of obesity. The UK had the highest rate of obesity (24.5%) and also had the highest household availability of ultra-processed foods (50.4%). This was also confirmed in a study that took 20 weigh-stable adults and fed them an ultra-processed diet for two weeks. They found that both energy intake increased and subsequently weight increased, compared to those consuming an unprocessed diet. Whilst this is a small sample study, limiting the amount of ultra-processed foods in your diet may help prevent obesity.
Is there a place for healthy processed food?
One of the key dietary recommendations is to eat at least five fruit and veg per day. These can be fresh but juiced. canned, frozen and dried count. However, it is recommended to drink no more than 150ml of unsweetened fruit juice, vegetable juice or smoothie a day because of their higher sugar content. It is also recommend to eat dried fruit at mealtimes and no more than 30g a day, to reduce the risk of tooth decay
Clearly processed fruit and veg is a healthy choice and can be highly convenient, and this can help people to meet the recommended target. In fact, some nutrients are more easily available due to the processing, for example, the amount of vitamin C in some frozen vegetables can even be higher than fresh ones that have been left on the shelf or in the fridge unused for a few days.
Another example of useful processing is seen with plant-based milks. Soya or oat milk substitutes are naturally very low in calcium, some vitamins and iodine but if these are fortified with nutrients during processing, the amounts of vitamins and minerals bring them more nutritionally in line with cow’s milk. This fortification means that those people who choose to avoid cow’s milk can still get the nutrients they need. Just look for the unsweetened varieties where you can.
How can I cut down on processed foods?
A healthy diet means eating a variety of nutritious foods from different food groups. In the UK, food-based dietary guidance (The Eatwell Guide) shows how foods we eat can provide the balance of nutrients needed for good health. Many of the foods depicted on the guide are processed to some degree, such as breads, cheese, frozen vegetables, pasta and yogurt. However, it makes sense to look at the foods you eat regularly to see if there are healthier options available, such as a low-salt or low-sugar variety. Here are some tips to reducing processed foods in your diet:
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When buying pasta sauces, take a look at the salt and fat content, and even the sugar content – you may be surprised at how much of these ingredients are in a ready-made brand. Alternatively, a healthier option would be to try to make one at home rather than buying a ready-made version, such as this roasted pepper sauce for pasta or chicken or a pasta with tomato & hidden veg sauce which has no added salt or sugar, and the vegetables means lots of added fibre
Some recipes like homemade baked beans, meatballs and fishcakes are easier to make at home than you think, and it’s fine to use some ‘cheat’ processed ingredients, such as ready-to-use beans (canned in water not salt), ready-made tomato or garlic purée and ready-to-use spice or herb mixtures.
10 processed food to cut down on
Margarine is generally made from vegetable oils such as soybean oil or sunflower oil, which means it can be low in saturated fat and high in the healthy polyunsaturated fats. The amounts of these ‘good fats’ will vary depending on what oil is used, and research does show that diets high in polyunsaturated fat help reduce the risk of heart disease. Some margarines are then further ‘enhanced’ by adding in phytosterols that have been shown to help reduce LDL (or bad) cholesterol levels when consumed.
However, the flip side of margarines is that they also contain trans-fat. At room temperature, vegetable oils are liquid, but as part of the manufacturing process, they are hydrogenated in order to make them solid, thereby altering their chemical structure and making them a trans-fat. A diet high in trans-fats is linked with an increased risk of certain diseases, including cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes.
Another risk of margarine is it's naturally high in omega-6 fatty acids. We do need some omega-6 in the diet, but it's about balance alongside omega-3 fatty acids. There is some debate as to whether this should be 1:1 or 4:1, but most Western diets, which have a high intake of processed foods, including margarine, are more likely to have levels at 20:1. Those diets with a higher omega-6 to omega-3 ratio have been associated with increased risks of chronic disease, including obesity and Alzheimer’s.
Swap margarine for butter
Butter isn’t the perfect swap as it is naturally high in saturated fats, although it does contain some unsaturated fats as well. There is still some debate as to how much saturated fat is too much, and whether it plays a role in increasing the risk of heart disease. However, butter has not been chemically altered in any way and, as part of a healthy diet, butter can sit quite comfortably as a healthier margarine alternative, especially on dishes like classic jacket potatoes or in sweet potato mash.
For extra health benefits, opt for grass-fed butter, as this appears to have an even better unsaturated fat profile including omega 3 fatty acids, as well as more nutrients such as vitamins A and K, which help support the immune system.
2) Luncheon meat
Luncheon meat is cured and seasoned meat (such as pork), that often comes as sliced or in a can. Any meat that has been cured, smoked, canned or salted is a processed food, and these types of meats, including hot dogs, salami and cured bacon, are associated with increased risk of conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and certain cancers such as bowel or stomach.
Swap luncheon meat for white meat or fish
A healthier swap for luncheon meats is fresh, unprocessed meat such as chicken breast, turkey breast, canned fish such as salmon or tuna or even some hard-boiled eggs. These alternatives will still provide the protein but without the associated risks that come with luncheon meat, such as this chicken & avocado sandwich topper or find out how to make hard-boiled eggs.
3) Vegan meat alternatives
There has been a real boom in veganism over recent years, and there is no doubting that a diet higher in vegetables and plant proteins can be good for you. However, there has also been a rise in ‘meat alternatives,’ including vegan meats such as vegan sausages, chicken breasts, deli meats and burgers. The challenge is that in order to get plant foods to look like a sausage and still have flavour, it often comes with a lot of industrial processing.
Plant-based meats are generally lower in calories and saturated fats but higher in carbohydrates and sugars. A 2019 study of plant-based meat substitutes found that in 139 products evaluated, 96% of them were high in salt, and sometimes higher than the actual meat version. Some products are better than others, but always check the label for salt content, as well as other ingredients included.
Swap meat-free sausage for tempeh or tofu
Tempeh or tofu offer a healthier swap while still being higher in protein, and offering potentially similar texture to meat-alternatives. Tempeh and tofu also contain more vitamins and minerals to meat alternatives, and research indicates they may help lower cholesterol thanks to their soy isoflavones, as well as reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer.
Tempeh is fermented soy, which makes it a rich source of prebiotics – the all-important food that feeds our good bacteria and supports health. Try this chilli tempeh stir-fry or tofu scramble for a great vegan breakfast.
4) Granola bars
Granola bars can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing! It's easy to think that they're healthy when you see they are full of nuts, oats or seeds, and some can be a good source of protein and all-important fibre, but beware of the sugar content. In order to ‘stick’ the healthy ingredients together, some brands use glucose syrup or rice syrup, as well as adding other sugars to sweeten the bars. In fact, some brands contain as much as three teaspoons of sugar in one bar.
Other bars that are ‘high protein’ get their ingredients from artificial sweeteners, skimmed milk powders and polyols, which are sugar alcohols that can cause digestive problems or even have a laxative effect. All of this takes away from the nutritional value of the ingredients.
If you are buying granola bars, always read the labels to check both the sugar content and the ingredients to ensure it isn't full of syrups and sweeteners.
Swap granola bars for homemade protein bars
Make a batch of protein bars at the weekend for a healthier alternative to shop-bought ones, such as our nut & raisin protein balls or apricot & seed protein bar, they’ll keep in the fridge for a week or two.
5) Instant noodles
Nothing says fast like some instant noodles! Instant noodles are pre-cooked noodles that come in a pot or a packet, and all your need is hot water. They can be high in calories depending on which brand or flavour your buy, as well as high in saturated fat and salt. Some pots contain almost a third of the recommended daily salt allowance. The ingredients consist of dried noodles made from wheat and palm oil and often contain flavoured sachets, which include different flavour enhancers and monosodium glutamate (MSG). In fact, a beef & tomato noodle pots contain don't contain beef – it's beef flavour, which comes from yeast and MSG. MSG is a common food additive that gives an umami (savoury) taste to food, and is usually safe to eat in small amounts, but there is some research that suggests it may cause health problems when consumed in larger amounts. Generally, apart from a few B vitamins and iron from the fortified wheat in the noodles, instant noodles do not provide much nutritional value to your diet.
Swap instant noodles for fresh chicken noodle soup
The best swap for instant noodles would be to make your own chicken noodle soup or a Japanese ramen noodle soup, packing it full of healthy proteins and vegetables as well as a healthier stock or bone broth. If you haven’t got time to make one though, then look for a fresh chicken noodle soup in the supermarket. These can be a little high in salt still, but they offer lower calories and saturated fat content, while keeping the protein levels up.
6) Cheesy slices
They may look like cheese and melt well over a burger, but processed cheesy slices are not a good alternative to the real thing. They are around 60% cheese and ‘cheese flavouring’ but more importantly, they contain artificial trans-fats, normally in the form of palm oil. As mentioned above, artificial trans-fat comes from chemically altering vegetable oils as part of the manufacturing process, allowing them to be solid at room temperature, and stay ‘fresher’ for longer, but they can increase your risk of conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Swap cheese slices for cheese
Cheese is a whole food and is perfectly fine to include in your diet, just not too much of it. Cheese contains cow’s milk, and you can buy it in convenient pre-sliced packets making it an easy swap for the processed cheesy slices. Try adding a slice on top of beef burgers or to make cheese & onion toast.
7) Microwave popcorn
Popcorn has seen a rise in popularity over recent years with lots of new brands and flavours coming to the supermarket aisles, as it can offer some benefits as a low-calorie snack and it's high in fibre. However, microwave popcorn is up there as a processed food as it contains palm oil which, when you put it in the microwave to ‘pop,’ may increase the trans-fats. Look out for the high sugar and salt content in some brands, too.
Swap microwave popcorn for air-popped popcorn
Some brands offer a healthier popcorn by air-popping their corn, a process whereby a device is used to heat the corn kernels until they pop rather than using any oils. Keep an eye on the salt and sugar content though, or you could try making your own and adding in some nuts for extra health benefits like this almond, raisin & popcorn trail mix, where you control the amount of oil, sugar and salt.
8) Shop-bought cakes
Shop-bought cakes, the kind where you get four or six in a box such as a cherry bakewell tart or a fondant fancy, are effectively an ultra-processed food. They are usually high in calories, saturated fat, and they contain artificial trans fats as well as refined sugars or syrups such as glucose syrup. In fact, one cake may contain up over 3 tsp sugar in just one small cake.
Swap a shop-bought cake for some dark chocolate
Dark chocolate makes a great swap for a shop-bought sweet treat – you only need a few squares as it's quite rich. A good dark chocolate, with minimum 75% cocoa, is a good source of iron, magnesium and fibre. It's also packed full of important antioxidants and polyphenols that offer cardiovascular benefits and may also support bone health. Try a chocolate chia pudding or chocolate & berry mousse pots for a healthier dessert.
9) Microwave ready meal
Microwave meals can be convenient, but there are concerns about their impact on health, both from the ingredients, but also from heating the food in plastic containers. The microwave itself is not the problem, but when plastic is heated, even BPA-free plastic, it may still release hormone-disrupting chemicals into your food. A lot of microwave meals contain those artificial trans fats again, which are also exacerbate when you ‘cook’ the meal in the microwave, and even those that tout themselves as being ‘healthy’ or ‘low calorie’ can still be high in salt.
Swap a microwave ready meal for homemade microwave meal
Cooking using your microwave has no known detrimental health benefits, as long as you don’t cook in plastic, so there are several dishes you can make at home quickly and using your microwave that are healthier than the ready-meal versions. Try a microwave chilli or a microwave penne pappa al pomodoro for an easy midweek dinner.
Crisps, including flavoured crisps, are a processed food. The oils often used in making crisps, such as sunflower and rapeseed oil, are also high in omega-6, and while this essential fatty acid is needed in our diets, too much of it can increase inflammation in the body, which in turn contributes to health issues such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes and obesity.
As for flavoured crisps, when you look at the list of ingredients, they often contain added salt, flavourings and fats to give them their flavour. That also means they're typically higher in calories and low in nutritional value too.
Swap flavoured crisps for air-popped, unsalted popcorn
As we've mentioned above, air-popped popcorn provides some of the savouriness and texture of crisps without the oil, but just look for unsalted brands or those with very little added flavour, otherwise you’ll be totting up the sugar and salt content again. Alternatively, you could try some basic curried roasted chickpeas, which requires a little oil, but would be a healthier snack with the addition of the spices.
Drinks to cut down on
Swap fizzy drinks for sparking water with fresh fruit
Make your own fizzy drink by grabbing a bottle of sparking water and adding fresh fruit for flavour such as lime, orange, strawberries, or you could try fresh herbs such as ginger or mint. A much healthier low-sugar option, while still keeping the fizz, are low-calorie drinks such as this non-alcoholic tropical fizz.
What should I look for on the label?
Not all processed foods are the same when it comes to health. For example, frozen peas are a better option than peas canned in salted water. The table below gives a list of some of the things to look for when buying canned fruit and veg which can be a very easy swap to make:
Avoid Choose instead
Canned fruit Canned in syrup or ‘light syrup’ Canned in natural juice
Canned vegetables Canned in salted water Canned in water
Canned fish Canned in brine Canned in spring water or olive oil
Looking at the label can be a good starting point when comparing the nutritional contents of processed foods. Many foods are labelled on the front of pack with ‘traffic light’ labels for fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar. If a food is labelled red, it doesn’t mean that you need to completely avoid it, for example, cheese is usually high (red) for fat and salt, but it is a good way of including protein and calcium too as part of a balanced diet.
Also don’t forget fibre – this is usually included in the nutrition panel on packs rather than the traffic lights. Choose higher fibre options where possible as the recommended 30g of fibre per day is currently achieved by only a small proportion of the population.
Processed foods such as ready meals, soups and sandwiches are really variable in the amount of fat, salt and sugar they contain, so if you are opting for a ready-made option sometimes, spend a moment comparing the labels and you might be surprised at the difference between two products that look quite similar. And remember, if it’s homemade, you're in greater control of the ingredients, and can choose to cut back on those which are unnecessary.
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This article was updated on 17th January 2023.
Nicola Shubrook is a nutritional therapist and works with both private clients and the corporate sector. She is an accredited member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). Find out more at urbanwellness.co.uk.
Dr Frankie Phillips is a registered dietitian and public health nutritionist specialising in infant and toddler nutrition with over 20 years of experience.
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