It’s hard to believe that not long ago, people considered homemade foods unfashionable. Packaged goods were the new, fancy, high-end option of choice. Since their invention, packaged foods have gotten more and more processed, and farther and farther from…well, food.
Recently, however, consumers have started to demand cleaner labels, and companies (both small and large), are beginning to deliver.
Now, packaged doesn’t always mean ultra-processed.
But when you don’t have time to make and package an on-the-go snack for yourself, how do you tell the difference between minimally processed, processed, and ultra-processed foods? Keep reading for a few quick tips for picking healthier on-the-go options.
First, what defines each of levels of processing, and why should you care?
Levels of “Processed”
Processed foods get an average of 2.4% of their calories from added sugars. Unfortunately, ultra-processed foods get an average of 21% of their calories from added sugars (yikes!). Excessive sugar intake, especially from sugary beverages, is associated with a myriad of health issues, from obesity to diabetes.
Top Tips for Picking Clean-Label Packaged Foods
1. Try to read and pronounce the ingredient list
- Generally, fewer ingredients are better when it comes to packaged foods, but there are definitely exceptions to this rule
- Ingredients that you can pronounce are usually safe
- Here are some that may not be as scary as they sound:
- Cellulose: A complex carbohydrate that gives plant cells their structure.
- Xanthan gum: A gel-like food additive that’s made through fermenting a sugar (with bacteria). Humans do not digest this soluble, FDA-approved fiber.
- Inulin: A type of fiber made from fructose (a simple sugar). Inulin is “prebiotic”, meaning it supports healthy gut bacteria.
- Ascorbyl palmitate: A form of vitamin C that manufacturers use to extend shelf life.
- Phytosterols: A beneficial, plant-based ingredient that can lower cholesterol.
2. Watch out for harmful additives
- Here are a few that have serious potential for harm:
(Curious about the research behind these dangers? Check out 6 Harmful Additives Still on U.S. Shelves)
3. Ask what effect the processing had on the foods included in the product
- Did processing decrease the “good” stuff? (Fiber, vitamins, minerals)
- Did processing increase the “bad” stuff? (Sugar, salt, fat)
- If you answered “yes” to both these questions, the food is negatively processed and should be avoided for an optimal diet. For a more nuanced approach, you can break each of these two questions into two or three more specific questions. If you answer “yes” to the majority of the questions, the food will most likely go against your health goals instead of supporting them.
- Here’s an example using this technique to compare two packaged yogurts. The plain option clearly comes out on top, qualifying as a processed food instead of an ultra-processed food.
Packaged foods can be part of a healthy diet. Which tools from this post will help you decide which packaged foods to purchase for yourself and your family?
For some tried-and-true packaged goodies, check out Staff Picks: Our Favorite Grab-and-Go Snacks.