Processed food – smart swaps and healthy alternatives

Which processed foods can we eat and which should we avoid? This article will guide you through how to handle processed food. We’ll give you tips on what you can swap out, as well as nutritious alternatives you can make yourself in your own kitchen.

What is processed food? 

Before we look at how to handle processed food in our daily lives, it’s a good idea to explain the term processed food in more detail. In simple terms, foods can be divided into three categories:

1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods

2. Processed foods

3. Ultra-processed foods

Let’s look at each of these in more detail:

Unprocessed or minimally processed foods are exactly what they sound like, foods in their natural state. However, this food may have undergone some processing in order to make it edible and safe and to increase its shelf-life. For example, it may have been dried, frozen, cleaned, boiled or fermented. This could include unprocessed meat/fish, milk, eggs, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, nuts and legumes.

Processed foods contain salt, sugars, butter and oils that are obtained from the unprocessed food. This category also includes precooked legumes in cartons or cans, preserved fish or other food, smoked fish, cheese and processed meats like bacon, sausages and hams. This type of food is created by combining unprocessed foods with salt, sugars, oils and so on.

Ultra-processed foods have undergone a significant amount of industrial processing. They often contain lots of sugars, artificial ingredients, refined carbohydrates and fats or additives. The consumption of ultra-processed food is increasing across the globe. A major factor behind this is that this type of food is usually very tasty and tends to be cheaper than unprocessed food.

Swap out non-nutritious processed foods for better alternatives

What makes ultra-processed food stand out is that it is often low in nutrition and fibre, and has a high number of calories. Some processed food (such as processed meat, for example) and a significant proportion of ultra-processed foods have been associated with a number of health risks. For example, there are studies that show that this type of food is linked to excess weight, obesity, type 2 diabetes, certain forms of cancer, inflammation, cardiovascular diseases and depression.

In order to minimise consumption of unhealthy processed and ultra-processed foods, there are a number of products we can swap out for healthier alternatives:

  • Sugary soft drinks are some of the most well-studied ultra-processed foods. The consumption of sugary drinks has been linked to a number of negative health effects, and we would all be better off avoiding these drinks entirely. Water is obviously the best thirst-quencher but sometimes you want something more. A good alternative is fizzy or still water which you can flavour yourself using fresh or frozen berries, fruits and herbs.
  • Some plant-based milks contain a lot of additives and some products also contain added sugar. So make sure to choose an unsweetened plant-based milk with minimal additives. You can also try making your own – in fact, it’s easier than you think! 
  • Breakfast cereals and granola are often portrayed as being healthy options when in fact they can contain a lot of added sugar in different forms, as well as unhealthy fats and a range of additives. Making your own granola is easy: just mix oats, nuts and seeds of your choice, spices like cinnamon or cardamom, coconut oil and a bit of honey. Mix it all together, spread it out on a tray and bake in the oven on a low temperature until it becomes crispy.
  • Candies and pastries are both tasty and easy to overeat. The good news, however, is that you can make your own sweets that are not only tasty but rich in fibre and nutrition. Why not try out our berry crumble, raspberry-flavoured bliss balls or chocolate-flavoured smoothie bowl, for example.

Healthy processed food

  • Minimally processed food like frozen berries/fruits/vegetables, pre-sliced vegetables or salads and dry roasted nuts are considered minimally processed and have largely been processed for convenience and accessibility.
  • Legumes and other canned vegetables are preserved by adding liquid and salt. If the product has a high sodium content, you can rinse the legumes/vegetables first.
  • Some products, like juices, have added vitamins and fibre, which is not a problem per se. However, what you should keep an eye out for and avoid are added sugars, maltose, corn syrup and fruit juice concentrate.
  • Some processed food is also considered to be healthier than unprocessed food. Kimchi, for example, which is fermented cabbage. It is a side dish from Korean cooking with a strong taste and has fibre and loads of lactic acid bacteria which are produced as a result of the fermentation process.

A supplement for your gut health

Want more energy and less bloating? It might be time to take better care of your gut. To strengthen or restore the balance in your gut flora, it's important you feed your gut with a daily dose of pre- and probiotics. A healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables is usually sufficient. If you want an extra boost or make sure you get a daily dose of good bacteria, you can complement your diet with a supplement.

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  • Hall D K, Ayuketah A, Brychta R, Cai H, Cassimatis T, Chen K Y et al. Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake. Cell Metabolism. 2019; 30(1): 67-77.
  • Lawrence, Mark & Baker, Phillip. (2019). Ultra-processed food and adverse health outcomes. BMJ. 365. l2289.
  • Marti A. Ultra-Processed Foods Are Not “Real Food” but Really Affect Your Health. Nutrients. 2019 Aug 15;11(8):1902.
  • Rico-Campà A, Martínez-González M A, Alvarez-Alvarez I, Mendonca R d D, de la Fuente-Arrillaga C, Gómez-Donoso C et al. Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all cause mortality: SUN prospective cohort study BMJ 2019; 365 :l1949.
  • Srour B, Fezeu L K, Kesse-Guyot E, Allès B, Méjean C, Andrianasolo R M et al. Ultra-processed food intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: prospective cohort study (NutriNet-Santé) BMJ 2019; 365
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