Plus healthier versions you can buy—or make at home—instead.
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 foodsÂ that contain additivesâlike hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors, and emulsifiersâwith long names you don't recognize.
The researchers also found that these ultra-processed foods account forÂ 90% of the addedÂ sugar we consume, increasingÂ ourÂ risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Yikes.Â In an interview withÂ HealthDay News,Â lead study authorÂ Euridice Martinez Steele stressed the importance of cleaning up our diets.Â "There is one relatively simple way to avoid excessive added sugarânot replacing real foodÂ â¦Â with ultra-processed food and drink products,"Â she said.
Luckily, creatingÂ homemade versions of yourÂ favorite treats is easier than youÂ mightÂ think.Â And you don't need to swear off conveniently-packaged snacks altogether, saysÂ Health's contributing nutrition editor Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD. You just need to read the labels carefully:Â "My take is, if the ingredient list looksÂ 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 foodsÂ in your pantry right now,Â and healthier versions you canÂ buyâor make at homeâinstead.
The most notoriousÂ offenders, says Sass, are brands that contain artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives. (That meansÂ 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 includeÂ organic blue corn chips andÂ popcorn, which isÂ low in calories, high in fiber, and packed with antioxidants.Â Or better yet, go the DIY route.Â Baked kaleÂ chips are easy to make,Â as are oven-roasted sweet potato chips. Follow theÂ the step-by-step instructions in the video below.
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Packaged snack cakes
Those plastic-wrapped cakes that seem toÂ last for
months yearsÂ in your pantryÂ areÂ packed with sugar and preservatives (hence their longevity). Whipping upÂ your own sweet treats is a better option, says Sass. You can use a nutrient-rich alternative to white flour, such asÂ chickpea or almond flour, and also cut back onÂ sugar and butter with healthier substitutions.Â Sass recommendsÂ replacingÂ half of the sugar in the recipe with pureed fruit (mashedÂ bananas and date paste both work well); and swapping each tablespoon of butter with a half tablespoon of avocado. (Check out this videoÂ for moreÂ smart baking swaps.)
Craving a sweet fix, stat?Â "I love to take fresh fruitâberries, slices of pears, whatever is in seasonâand warm them in a skillet with a little lemon water," SassÂ says. "Then I'll make homemade crumble with almond butter, oats, and cinnamon and sprinkleÂ it on top of the fruit."
You already know to avoid ultra-processed white bread in favor of fiber-rich whole grain breadsÂ thatÂ offer a slew of good-for-you perks. But picking the right loaf can be tricky because even healthy-seeming varieties can contain additives:Â "Bread is one of those foodsÂ where reading the ingredient list is really very important,"Â Sass explains.Â In general, she recommends looking for a whole grain or gluten-free, or even grain-free bread that doesn't haveÂ 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 itÂ before. But seriously, it's time to ditch your diet soda stash once and for all. Besides the fact that diet soda has zeroÂ nutritional value, itÂ contains artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose, and has been linked to headaches, depression, and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.Â If you can't get used to plain old H2O, opt forÂ sparkling or flavored water.Â "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-processedÂ version ofÂ pre-made pizza. The best alternative, says Sass, is makingÂ your own dough. She bakesÂ a light, flakyÂ crust from chopped upÂ cauliflowerÂ that pleases even diehard pizza fans,Â and loads it up with veggies and fresh greens.Â This video shows how simpleÂ it is so makeÂ 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.Â But the good news, is there are better optionsÂ out there.Â "Seventy percentÂ dark chocolate is a great alternative to candy," Sass says, notingÂ that it's a good source ofÂ magnesiumÂ andÂ antioxidants, which can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol. For a bite-sized treat, sheÂ likes Dagoba Organic Chocolate Chocodrops ($8;Â 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.Â And if you preferÂ gummy candies, Sass recommends a German brandÂ called Seitenbacher Gummi Fruit ($20 for a dozenÂ 3-oz. bags;Â amazon.com). "Their sweetness comes from real fruit juices, such as apple and beetroot," she says.