Beyond Processed Foods: How to Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods

Beyond Processed Foods: How to Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods

In This Article

Categories of Processed Foods

In the 2010 National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES), they evaluated the amount of “ultra-processed” and “processed” foods consumed by more than 9000 adults. Sadly, more than half (57%) of the calories consumed in America were from ultra-processed foods that delivered 89% of the calories from added sugar in the American diet. (1)

So now, we have two categories of processed foods:

  1. Ultra-processed that are really bad and toxic.
  2. Then, the run of the mill, garden variety processed foods, which are just plain old bad.

Let me explain. Ultra-processed foods are foods that are processed with many additives for flavor, fillers or thickening agents for inexpensive bulk, preservatives for shelf life or chemicals to make us crave them. Yep, that’s a real thing. Chemicals are often added to make us crave more processed foods. (2) These additives include salt, sugar, oils, fats, flavorings, emulsifiers and many other chemical-based additives.

Ultra-processed foods include snack foods, sweet or salty packaged foods, candy, desserts, packaged baked goods, instant noodles and soups, frozen foods, meats like chicken and fish sticks and other reconstituted meat products. Processed foods are made with salt, sugar and other substances and manifest as canned goods, bread and cheese. (The good news is that these foods can often be found in your health food store in a non-processed form.)

Eating 10% of the daily calories as sugar is the upper limit of what is considered safe. In the survey, the folks who ate the most ultra-processed foods ate more than 80% of their calories from sugar. (1) To get below 10%, only a bare minimum of ultra-processed foods are allowed.

My suggestion is to follow the advice of the late fitness guru, Jack Lalanne, which he gave me many years ago, “Don’t eat anything with a wrapper.”  I realize that this is not possible for many of us, but it is a healthy goal for all of us to aim for. This means no frozen pizza, French fries, salad dressings, nutrition or protein bars, ketchup, mass-produced bread, refined cooking oils, no dairy with Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), candy, desserts and anything microwavable.

Start by Avoiding the Top 3 Major Processed Foods Groups

  1. Sugar or artificial sweeteners: Avoid all added sugars. Nothing over 6 grams of naturally-occurring sugar per serving.
  2. Refined, cooked oils. (Anything baked with oils or fried, i.e., bread, baked goods, chips, etc.)
  3. Chemicals: Don’t eat it if you don’t recognize the name in the ingredients.

Note: Removing these 3 processed food groups takes away most foods that come with a wrapper or are packaged.

Top 10 List of Food Additives to Avoid

  1. Carrageenan – in many almond milks
  2. Polysorbate 60 – a thickener in baked goods
  3. Sodium nitrates and all sulfites – meats and wine
  4. All food dyes and colorings – in many foods
  5. Propyl gallate – preserves fat
  6. BHA/BHT – preservative for fats and cereals
  7. Potassium bromate – in many breads
  8. Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH)
  9. Propylene glycol – in many salad dressings
  10. MSG (monosodium glutamate) – in many processed proteins

Top 10 List of Processed Foods to Avoid

  1. Frozen or farmed meats
  2. Salad dressings or packaged flavorings
  3. Ketchup
  4. Frozen protein alternatives
  5. Most granola or protein bars
  6. Instant anything
  7. Microwavable anything
  8. Refined cooking oils found in bread, baked goods, chips, etc.
  9. Refined whole grains – bleached, refined, enriched flour
  10. Fast or fried foods


  1. BMJ Open 2016;6:e009892 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2015-009892

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Dr. John

1 thought on “Beyond Processed Foods: How to Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods”

  1. Thank you for this informative article. I have a question—what are farmed meats? We purchase a produce share from a local farm and also buy their meat from time to time. The farm has relationships with other local farmers to provide the meat. Are you indicating that this type of meat would be a bad choice?


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