When I first decided to try and cut out all processed food from my diet and pantry, I distinctly remember trying to google “list of processed food” and feeling really confused by the lack of answers. So today my hope is to provide some direction for those in the same boat because, after loads of research and practice, avoiding processed food (thankfully) becomes a lot less complicated.
And, honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way now that I've gotten the hang of it!
I do want to say one quick thing though about using the word “processed.” Cooking is technically a form of processing, or changing your food, so what we’re really looking at today is how to know if your food is HIGHLY processed. If you don’t want your food to be processed at all then you should look into a raw diet.
Your Packaged Food Is Highly Processed If It Contains:
Ingredients you would not cook with at home.
Some people like to avoid ingredients they can’t pronounce, but I honestly like this guideline better and it’s just as easy to follow. If you wouldn’t cook with it in your own kitchen (hello, maltodextrin and high-fructose corn syrup) then consider it a red flag that the product is likely highly processed.
I have long lists of why I avoid artificial dyes and sweeteners, but the reality is you’re not going to find these additives in any food that is truly “real” and wholesome. So this is another easy guideline to help you eliminate a lot of junk easily.
Any form of refined, added sugar.
Sugar itself is not the devil, it’s the quantity in which it’s consumed. And it’s becoming a bigger and bigger issue because these days sugar is in an insane amount of packaged, processed foods (including everything from crackers and bread to salad dressing and marinades). I do treat myself to desserts with refined sugar on occasion, but I’m talking maybe once a week. Consistently consuming more than your recommended daily allowance is where we can get into trouble.
Refined grains (i.e. “wheat” without the word “whole”)
Refined grains boast a longer shelf life and more mild taste, but this comes with a sacrifice. When grains are no longer whole it basically means they’ve been processed to the point where most of the good nutrients have been stripped away. That’s why manufacturers are required to “enrich” refined flours – it’s an attempt to try to add back in what might be missing – but, since manufacturers simply cannot recreate nature, it’s best (and less processed!) to just stick with the original whole grain instead.
More than 5 ingredients
This rule was created in an effort to draw the line somewhere when it comes to packaged food (not recipes you make yourself!). Sure, you can probably find a decent trail mix with 6 ingredients, but this guideline is a great rule of thumb to keep things from getting out of hand.