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Nine Ways to Recognise ‘Hidden’ Processed Foods

I just have to pass on to you this quick reference from The Washington Post (WAPO). I hope it will help folks clear up any confusion they have about what processed and ultra-processed foods are. Some manufacturers camouflage them!

6-Piece Chicken Nuggets - © 2023 Wendy'sChicken Nuggets: Among the most-processed foods on the market today!

“Empowering yourself with the knowledge of what you’re about to eat or what you’re about to feed your family is critical,” Nicole Avena, a visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University, told WAPO.

WAPO asked her to create a list of ‘red flags’ we can all recognise easily when reading product ingredient lists.

Signs and signals

How many of these signs and signals were already aware of?

1. More than three ingredients

Many ultra-processed foods have long lists of ingredients that can sound like a high school chemistry experiment. “You can still buy the foods you want,” said Stephen Devries, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “But you should find the least-altered version of those foods with the fewest ingredients possible.”

2. Thickeners, stabilizers or emulsifiers

Look for ingredients such as soy lecithin, guar gum, xanthan gum, carrageenan, mono- and diglycerides, or carboxymethylcellulose. Ultra-processed foods often contain dyes to make them look appealing, preservatives to give them a long shelf life, and thickeners, stabilizers and emulsifiers to improve their texture or to keep their ingredients from separating as they sit on store shelves for weeks or months at a time. This is a big red flag, and one that often rears it’s ugly head!

3. Added sugars and sweeteners

Try to avoid foods with corn syrup, cane sugar, malt syrup or molasses on the label. If you want extra sweetness, add your own sugar or honey.

4. Ingredients that end in ‘-ose’

Examine the label for sucrose, maltose, dextrose, fructose or glucose. These are other names for added sugars.

5. Artificial or ‘fake’ sugars

Look for aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame-k, saccharin or stevia. Sweeteners and artificial flavors are another hallmark of ultra-processed foods.

6. Health claims

Ultra-processed foods often have buzzy marketing claims on their packages. Many products that are marketed as nutritious are actually laden with sweeteners and other additives. These products include breakfast cereals, granola, flavored yogurt, snack bars, salad dressings and canned soups.

7. Low-sugar promises

Does the label say that the product is low in added sugar? That can be a red flag, because manufacturers often replace the added sugar in their products with artificial sweeteners.

8. Instant and flavored varieties

“When it’s instant, it’s usually mechanically altered in a way that degrades it,” Devries observes. So, if you like oatmeal for breakfast, buy the product that has only ‘oats’ in it and nothing else. And don’t be tempted by foods offered in a variety of fruity or other flavors. If you like fruit-flavored yogurt, buy plain yogurt and add your own fresh fruit.

9. Could you make it in your kitchen?

When in doubt, look at the ingredient label and ask yourself whether you could make it at home. Ultra-processed foods contain additives that are not typically used in home kitchens. They are often transformed into textures and shapes not found in nature – things like frosted cereals, doughnuts, hot dogs (see photo, top of page) and chicken nuggets.

My take

That all makes a lot of sense. But as I hinted at the top of the list, some if not many of these tips for identifying processed foods are not common knowledge.

Many thanks to WAPO and Drs. Avena and Devries for their contribution to the culinary’ common wisdom’.

~ Maggie J.