How many times have you heard the phrase lately (whether condescendingly or not), “We don’t eat processed foods.”

It’s become a popular thing to say, but I’m often surprised, once the conversation continues, that many don’t know the definition of processed foods. It’s also a question I’ve been getting more frequently lately. So let’s go over the REAL facts about processed foods.

First and foremost, 90% of your food is processed. Unless you pick the apple right off the tree and sink your teeth into it, you’re technically eating processed food. Canning, freezing, refrigerating, cooking, dehydrating, and yes, even blending, are forms of processing food. But if done right, these processing methods have little effect on the quality of food you’re getting. And minimally processing food helps us out a ton in the areas of taste and convenience. But there’s a food-processing line that’s crossed all too often in today’s world. The line in which, once crossed, the food is no longer recognizable as food.

Since when is the fluorescent orange powder packet that comes in your mac and cheese, cheese?

Since when is grinding up several types of meat and other areas of animal flesh into a fine pulp, then soaking it in chlorine, nitrates and dyes, then stuffing it into a pig intestine, then bbq-ing it considered meat?

Since when can you call juiced apples, with all their fiber removed, and three types of sugar added in, fruit juice?

It’s not just weird and gross to think about. These foods are gravely detrimental to our health, and should be avoided as often as possible. Although the three foods I picked on above are in the “almost-never c”ategory at my house, I’m not about to tell you that I NEVER eat processed food. There are several boxed, wrapped, and canned foods that save us time in the kitchen, while still providing good nutrition without harmful chemicals.

Here’s a list of the foods that, in my opinion, have crossed the line or come dangerously close to it. And because I’m all about convenience, I’ve also suggested some alternatives that are still doable in our busy lives.

Canned Foods. These almost always contain ridiculous amounts of sodium, and often some freaky preservatives. Soups and sauces are especially high in sodium, even if you get the organic brands. I’ve never met a canned fruit that wasn’t full of sugary syrup. Canned vegetables are void of many nutrients. So what can us busy people do?

  1. Beans, olives, and tomato products actually have some okay alternatives. It’s best to use dried beans that you soak and cook/sprout, but you can find no-salt, no-preservative canned beans. Check the ingredients and the sodium levels (sodium shouldn’t go above 15% of the RDA value, TOPS!)
  2. Because fruits and vegetables are what we need above all other food, and canned fruits and veggies just don’t come close to cutting it nutritionally, I strongly recommend you not buy them canned if at all possible. Get your produce fresh when you can, but know that frozen is a really close second to fresh. Frozen produce is affordable and almost as convenient as canned, plus you’ll keep most of the nutrients.
  3. Canned soup is the tough one. It’s very difficult to find healthy canned soups. Some of the organic brands might be acceptable, but the sodium is still through the roof. Soup from scratch tastes better, is much better for you, and with the right recipe, can be made conveniently.

Bread and Pasta. You already know the biggest problem with bread and pasta: refined grains. There are lots of whole grain pasta options with just one ingredient: the grain! The most common I’ve seen is whole durum wheat, but you can find all sorts of whole grains in pasta. There are good bread options, but they’re much more tricky than pasta. Learning to choose the right bread was one of the things that took me the longest time. I kept being fooled by their tricky marketing. Here’s the trick: look for bread with the fewest ingredients possible (5-6 ingredients, unless it has several types of seeds in it that bring it to 10-12 ingredients), and the most dense, coarse look you can find. It’s often the local brand with the ugly, boring label that is the healthiest.

Chips, Crackers and Cookies. First off, these things should be treated as “treats” and eaten in moderation even if you do find a healthier brand. They’re still usually high in “empty” calories. In the case of crackers, I’ve got some great recipes coming up to make your own without the trans fat and MSG. As far as cookies go? Are they even worth it from the package? If you’re going to have a cookie dessert, why not make your own and really enjoy them?

Frozen Nuggets, Fish Chips, and Dinners. Unfortunately, most frozen meals are full of chemicals, sugar, fillers, refined grains, and all sorts of chemical preservatives. Some organic brands offer better ingredients, but the sodium is still inappropriately high. I would save these convenience items for extremely rare occasions, or eliminate them altogether. Microwave dinners–the kind with the pull-back plastic film–are on a completely different level and should be avoided entirely. Look at the ingredients and you’ll agree.

Breakfast Cereals have a special place in my heart. Especially when they so alluringly draw in my unsuspecting four-year-old with their super cool characters who clearly get all their energy, brawn and brains by eating pure sugar for breakfast. I’ll be frank in telling you that I have yet to find a store bought boxed cereal that I’m fully impressed with. Of course there are “better” options out there. Whole grain cereals that use REAL sugar, no dies, and no preservatives are an okay option, but still not ideal. My suggestion is to use these occasionally, and when you do, sprinkle seeds over the top for added protein and essential fats. A teaspoon of sesame seeds sprinkled on your child’s breakfast cereal (and yours) is great! If you love to eat cereal at your house, I suggest making a big batch of your own granola, and adding berries on top for sweetness.

Processed Meat. I saved the best for last. I won’t go into details on processed meat today, as this is meant to be a high-level article that gives you alternatives. Just know that lunch meat, deli meat, bacon, turkey bacon, sausages, hot dogs, and other highly processed meats have been proven to increase your risk for cancer (especially colon cancer) by quite a bit. If you eat meat, stick to the basics: chicken breast that contains one ingredient: chicken breast! Also lean steaks, ground turkey, and fish filets. Choose brands that don’t contain nitrates or nitrites, and look at the sodium levels.

It takes a little bit more work to eat a less processed diet. But everyone who does it swears that the benefits outweigh the extra time by far. You don’t need to dive in to the deep end of the pool. Print this out and choose just one of these categories to change this month. Once that change feels like second nature to you (it’ll be sooner than you think!), start changing the next. You CAN make the change to 100% healthy eating if you make the change on a gradient. Ease in to it, and smile as you ease out of your health complaints!

p.s. I give everyone who downloads my free eBook Green Smoothies for Beginners a detailed guide on how to read food labels and decode all the marketing mumbo-jumbo so you can buy truly healthy food for you and your family. To get your free copy, go here: http://www.mckennagordon.com/blog/beginner