Ultra-Processed Foods To Replace Right Now

Read on for healthier versions you can buy or make at home, too.

Alex Sandoval

An alarming piece of research revealed that 60 percent of calories in the average American's daily diet come from "ultra-processed" foods. These foods have gone through extensive processing and contain additives—like hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors, and emulsifiers. What makes this news so alarming is that ultra-processed foods can be detrimental to your health.

Luckily, you don't have to give up on your favorite treats. Instead, try replacing ultra-processed foods and drinks with real, whole foods and beverages. When you're at the grocery store, check the labels. If the ingredients read like a recipe, that's a good thing. If the list includes a lot of words, you may want to think again.

Those who are up for the challenge may choose to create homemade versions of their favorite desserts and snacks. Making your favorite treats from scratch is often easier than you might think. The added benefit is that you'll get to pick out all of your own ingredients.

There is no shame in buying premade foods either. Not all of us have the time or desire to whip up crafty concoctions in the kitchen. Here is a quick guide on how to replace highly processed and ultra-processed foods with healthier options.

What Are Processed Foods?

Processed foods are any foods that have been changed in some way. Sometimes the processing is minimal, like with salad mixes and baby carrots, roasted nuts, or frozen fruits and veggies. Minimally processed foods are often healthier options.

Then there is the other end of the spectrum. Highly or ultra-processed foods are the ones you should be watching out for. These foods include ready meals, soft drinks, and snacks—yes, that includes chips and candy.

Health Risks of Processed Foods

Scientists have been studying what makes these ultra-processed foods so bad for you.

If highly processed foods make up a large part of your diet, you may be getting more sodium, added sugar, and unhealthy fats than you need. And ultra-processed foods have been linked with health conditions like obesity, high blood pressure, cancer, and death from all causes.

Results from one study found that people who consumed large amounts of ultra-processed foods also tended to have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Other research found that having more than four servings of ultra-processed foods on a daily basis may put you at a higher risk of death of all causes.

Highly and Ultra-Processed Foods To Avoid

Here are some highly and ultra-processed foods that you may want to consume sparingly, if at all, or find a healthier alternative to.


Chips come in a variety of flavors and styles. Most chips give you very little when it comes to nutrition. They are often high in refined carbs, unhealthy fats, and salt. Worse yet, some brands contain artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives. (Chips that are neon-orange, for example.)

However, some options are better than others. A basic kettle chip that contains three simple ingredients (potatoes, olive or sunflower oil, and salt) is a good place to start. You could also try organic blue corn chips and popcorn, which are low in calories, high in fiber, and packed with antioxidants.

If you are feeling inspired or have some extra time, go the DIY route. Baked kettle chips and sweet potato chips are two easy-to-make options. Follow the step-by-step instructions in the video below.

Packaged Snack Cakes

Those plastic-wrapped cakes that seem to last for months—no, years—in your pantry are packed with sugar and preservatives (hence their longevity). Whipping up your own sweet treats or visiting your local bakery is a better option. Plus you can control or ask about everything that goes into them.

You can use a nutrient-rich alternative to white flour, such as chickpea or almond flour, and also cut back on sugar and butter with healthier substitutions. One hack is to replace half of the sugar in the recipe with pureed fruit (mashed bananas and date paste both works well) and swap each tablespoon of butter with a half tablespoon of avocado.

Craving a sweet fix, stat? Fresh fruit is an excellent decision. Snack on some berries, slices of pears, or whatever is in season. You can also find a low-sugar recipe for homemade crumble that uses healthy ingredients, like almond butter, oats, and cinnamon, and sprinkle fruit on top.

Certain Breads

You're on the right track if you avoid ultra-processed white bread in favor of fiber-rich whole-grain bread that offers a slew of good-for-you perks. Even then, picking the right loaf can be tricky because varieties that seem healthy can contain additives.

If it's bread you're craving, opt for whole grain, whole wheat, or sourdough bread that doesn't have any artificial additives or preservatives. Check the frozen foods section, too, if you're not finding what you're looking for. Some of the healthiest breads don't have preservatives so they need to be kept frozen.

If you are one of the many people who have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, you may be buying gluten-free options. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and can cause digestive problems for those with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. It should be mentioned, however, that even gluten-free products can still be highly processed. Again, you'll want to take a look at the ingredients on the label.

Diet Soda

Yes, you've heard it before. But seriously, it's time to ditch your diet soda stash once and for all. Besides the fact that diet soda has zero nutritional value, it contains artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose.

Worse yet, research has shown that people who drink diet soda every day have a 67% higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes.

Diet soda may be affecting our mental health as well. Studies have found that the rate of depression is higher in people who drink beverages with artificial sweeteners (like diet soda) compared to people who didn't consume beverages containing these sweeteners.

If you can't get used to plain old H2O, opt for sparkling or flavored water. Or flavor your water naturally using fresh ingredients. To brighten up a glass of water, try adding a squeeze of lemon, thin slices of cucumber, or fresh mint.

Frozen Pizza

Sadly, there doesn't seem to be a minimally-processed version of pre-made pizza. Pizza dough runs into the same problems as processed bread.

One of the best alternatives is to make your own dough. If you've never tried a light, flaky crust from chopped-up cauliflower, you might be pleasantly surprised. Even diehard pizza fans love a delicious slice loaded up with veggies and fresh greens. You can also make pizza dough with whole wheat flour.

If a frozen pizza is what you're going for, there may at least be some healthier options out there. Frozen pizzas made with cauliflower crust may be your best bet. But again, check the label to see what other ingredients might be in the pizza.


Here's the bad news on candy: Most of the movie theater brands you know and love contain high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, and sometimes other potentially unsafe ingredients. But the good news is there are better options out there.

If you're a chocolate lover, dark chocolate is a great substitute for candy. Dark chocolate contains lots of antioxidants, which can help prevent cancer. But you'll still want to check the label for added sugar. And be aware that cocoa in dark chocolate contains caffeine, so the higher the percentage, the more caffeine.

A Quick Review

It's best to limit or avoid highly processed and ultra-processed foods in your diet when possible. Healthier options abound if you want to have your cake and eat it too.

If it's sweets and bread you crave, check the labels extra carefully. These highly processed products can contain not-so-healthy ingredients. Generally, if the list of ingredients looks like a recipe list, it's a smart choice. If not, consider replacing those items with items that have simpler ingredients.

The healthiest options will involve rolling up your sleeves and possibly getting your hands a little sticky. Homemade sweets and snacks can be just as tasty without additives. Plus, you'll be able to pick out the best ingredients for your dietary needs.

Any concerns or questions about your diet should be discussed with a healthcare provider or registered dietician. They can help you make the best choices for your lifestyle and health goals.

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