You’ve heard the fuss over processed foods—but do you know what ultra-processed foods are? First off, know that there are different levels of processing when it comes to the things we eat. Fresh fruits and vegetables appear in stores in basically their natural form. Things like milled oats and canned or frozen vegetables are minimally processed and are still pretty nutritious.
Ultra-processed foods are exactly why they sound like. “Think products like boxed cake mixes, instant noodles, and chicken nuggets,” says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, and owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition. “These usually have a long ingredient list with additives and preservatives.”
If you’re like me, you rarely leave the house without a snack in some kind of plastic wrapper tucked away in a coat pocket or squished at the bottom of your bag. The unfortunate reality is that many of these snacks contain a bunch of added preservatives and opaque ingredients. They kind of need to, in order to stay “fresh” in their wrappers and boxes for so long. Obviously, these aren’t so great for your long-term health either.
In a recent study published in the medical journal JAMA, researchers in France tracked the diets and lifestyles of around 44,000 adults (age 45 and up). They found that eating a lot of ultra-processed foods was linked to a higher risk of death. Though more studies are still needed, their results echoed many previous studies that linked elements of ultra-processed foods—with ingredients like added sugars, saturated fats, and high amounts of sodium—to negative outcomes like diabetes and heart disease.
“It also makes it hard to have room in your diet to include foods that offer nutritional benefits,” Gorin adds, “such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.”
Does the thought of giving up your pita chips make you want to cry? Me too.
Many ultra-processed foods, though, have healthier versions that can be made at home, meaning that you control the ingredients that go into them (and your body).
DIY: Frozen Meals
Let’s start with frozen meals, one of the most convenient and time-saving options out there. Is it convenient to pop a TV dinner into the microwave and sit down to eat a mere three minutes later? Yes. The problem is that a lot of these options—even the ones that claim to be “healthy”—are ultra-processed and have a ton of sodium, saturated fat, and preservatives (not to mention excessive calories).
The reality is one afternoon of meal prep can make it so you never have to eat frozen Lean Cuisines again. Dishes like burritos, curries, and soups are easy to make in batches and freeze in reusable containers or plastic bags. Try one of these ten Chowhound-approved burrito recipes, complete with tips for freezing. Or one of these cozy meals that freeze well, ranging from lentil soup to cauliflower curry and Swedish meatballs. They heat up just as quickly as a TV dinner would in the microwave. Just make sure that you’re thoroughly cooking meats before freezing, and don’t overpack containers since the water in them will expand.
DIY: Instant Ramen
Another surprisingly fun and easy food to DIY is instant ramen, one of the top ultra-processed offenders. All it takes is a few mason jars, rice noodles or pre-cooked noodles, your favorite broth base, and toppings of your choice. Vegetables like spinach and bean sprouts that can be eaten raw work best. Add hot water, wait a few minutes, and you’ve got instant noodles without all of the mystery additives.
Now that meals are out of the way, let’s talk snacks. Though some granola and energy bars might be marketed as healthy, many of them have added sugar and artificial flavorings.
Thankfully, it basically takes the same amount of time to make granola bars from scratch as it does to buy a box from the grocery store, especially since most of the ingredients are pantry staples like oats and dried fruits or nuts. Simply mix the oats with a nut butter and sweetener like honey, dates, or maple syrup to bind, then fold in your favorite toppings. Lots of recipes are also non-bake, making them as quick to prep as a bowl of oatmeal.
If you’re more of a savory-snacks person, there are also plenty of make-at-home options for you. Swap out that bag of store-bought chips for homemade ones, which are as easy as slicing up your favorite vegetables and baking them. If you have a food processor, you can whip up your own version of goldfish with just five ingredients.
Homemade popcorn is one of the best-kept secrets of the snack world. Though it’s generally healthier than chips because it’s full of fiber, the added sodium and artificial butter flavoring found in many microwaveable packets cancels that right out. Instead, just pour a bunch of kernels into a paper bag and microwave. Voila—fresh, unprocessed microwave popcorn. Add some spices like cinnamon and butter or chili powder and a squeeze of lime.
Last on our list (but first in our hearts): desserts. Admittedly, many homemade versions of things like Oreos, Pop-Tarts, and snack cakes are more time-intensive than simply buying them off the shelf. But wow, do they taste good. You can also control aspects like the amount of sugar or the type of flour. Try this homemade version of Oreos with an uncannily familiar filling, or swap out the fondant for your favorite flavor of buttercream.
If you’ve never tried to make your own pop-tarts, recipes like this one will blow your mind. Basically, it’s like making giant raviolis out of pie crust and filling. Just roll out your pie dough of choice, divvy up some filling like jam or brown sugar and cinnamon, and seal. They won’t last as long as the store-bought version, but then again, they likely won’t last long out of the oven anyway.
Choosing Products at the Store
If you’re just too pressed for time or energy to DIY some of these items, don’t worry—there are minimally processed options for premade snacks, foods, and even meals that you can find in the grocery store. In general, when checking out your options, make sure to look at the ingredients list.
“A processed food will be one that is closer to its original form,” says Gorin, “such as canned vegetables, frozen fruit, roasted nuts, or a bar with just a few ingredients and no preservatives.”
Related Reading: The Best (& Worst) Canned Food, According to Nutritionists
Dried fruit is a ready snack option, as are hummus and vegetables. Look for dark chocolate bars with high cocoa content to help curb your sweet tooth. Lots of grocery stores also have freshly prepared food like rotisserie chicken, which can help you save time when cooking.
If you’re really craving ice cream or chips or your favorite snack once in awhile, Gorin adds, just go for it. As long as they’re eaten in moderation, they don’t have to completely disappear from your life.
Related Video: How to Make Superfood-Infused Ice Cream with Moringa
Header image by Chowhound.