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15 Homemade Swaps for the Worst Ultra-Processed Foods

While you might not be familiar with the term "ultra-processed," your gut certainly is. According to a new study, these additive-laden frankenfoods make up almost 60 percent of our daily calories and account for 90 percent of the added sugar we consume.

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15 Homemade Swaps for the Worst Ultra-Processed Foods

While you might not be familiar with the term "ultra-processed," your gut certainly is. According to a new study, these additive-laden frankenfoods make up almost 60 percent of our daily calories and account for 90 percent of the added sugar we consume.

You've probably heard that processed food is bad for you. But as it turns out, we've been using this term all wrong. It's ultra-processed food that we need to worry about. According to experts, food processing lies along a pretty diverse spectrum. It starts with the basics: your unprocessed foods (i.e. veggies), your minimally processed foods (i.e. meat or yogurt), and your processed ingredients (i.e. sugar, oil, or vinegar). "Processed foods" are foods made with the addition of a processed culinary ingredient, so these include cheeses, cured meats, and even pickles.

While some processed foods can be healthy foods, ultra-processed foods are definitely not. Ultra-processed foods are the "formulation" of multiple processed ingredients. On top of the added salts and sugars, this "ultra" distinction includes substances not generally used in cooking like flavors, colors, emulsifiers, and other additives designed to imitate the qualities of "real food." So, what are these exactly? Think sodas, cheesy chips, chicken nuggets, and instant soups.

This study, published in BMJ Open, which found out how many of our calories and grams of added sugar are really coming from these chemically-laden, ultra-processed foods gives us incredible perspective as to perhaps the root of many health issues that currently plague Americans: weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. While ultra-processed foods are tailored to appeal to our taste buds, they're often lacking in valuable nutrients—like fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals—which have been found to combat and protect against these very same health issues.

We here at Eat This, Not That! wanted to take a closer look at the ultra-processed foods that are making us sick and fat. The great news? You don't have to give them up to lose weight. Just use real ingredients you can find in your kitchen to make them. Starting with the ultra-processed group that contributes the highest percentage of calories to your daily intake, here are the worst ultra-processed foods that are derailing your diet, challenged by their healthy, homemade swaps. Still not convinced you should hop on the homemade bandwagon? Check out these 20 Benefits of Ditching Processed Foods.

1

Bread

Ultraprocessed homemade swaps bread

Eat This! Seeded Whole Grain Breakfast Bread

Nutrition per slice (43 g): 102 calories, 2.3 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 93 mg sodium, 17 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 2 g sugar, 4 g protein
Number of ingredients: 13 (including every different seed)

Not That! Pepperidge Farm Hearty White Bread

Nutrition per slice (43 g): 110 calories, 1.5 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 240 mg sodium, 22 g carbs, 1 g fiber, 4 g sugar, 4 g protein
Number of ingredients: 20

If Oprah is eating bread like this Farmhouse White "every. single. day." as she has reportedly bragged, she's in for a rude awakening. Packaged bread can have 4+ grams of sugar per slice. That means you'd be eating 8 grams of sugar per sandwich—more sweet stuff than a pack of jelly beans. To make things worse, this bread is sweetened with high fructose corn syrup and comes with ingredients like calcium propionate, sorbic acid, soy lecithin, and mono and diglycerides that you can't find in your kitchen. When looking for bread, make sure you're grabbing a loaf made with slow-releasing whole wheat flour—like our homemade suggestion does—and comes with extra whole grains and seeds such as pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, and sunflower seeds for some added crunch and extra nutrients.

Need your white bread fix? Find out how you can still fit it into your flat-belly routine with our Official Carb Lover's Guide to Weight Loss.

Make it at home! via Half Baked Harvest.

2

Cookies

Ultraprocessed homemade swaps cookies

Eat This! Oat Flour Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies

Nutrition per 48 g (about 2 cookies): 222 calories, 15 g fat (12 g saturated fat), 164 mg sodium, 19 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 7.5 g sugar, 3 g protein
Number of ingredients: 9

Not That! Mrs. Fields Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chip Cookie

Nutrition per 1 cookie (48 g): 220 calories, 11 g fat (4.5 g saturated fat), 160 mg sodium, 28 g carbs, 1 g fiber, 17 g sugar, 2 g protein
Number of ingredients: 41(!)

So, besides the fact that Mrs. Fields cookies are monstrously sized (they're equal to two of the homemade cookies), they're primarily full of semi-sweet chocolate chips (whose first ingredient, sugar, adds to the absurd sugar count). Let's compare ingredients, shall we? Mrs. Fields uses processed fats (mono and diglycerides as well as margarine) while these homemade cookies use unprocessed coconut oil—which is full of lauric acid, a healthy saturated fat that converts into energy more easily than other types of fat. Mrs. Fields uses emulsifiers like soybean lecithin and xanthan gum. You use eggs. They use enriched bleached flour that could be contaminated with heavy metals and has been stripped of all nutritional value, you use freshly ground, fiber-rich oat flour. Which would you rather eat now?

See where Mrs. Fields lies on our exclusive report, The Most Popular Cookies in America—Ranked!.

Make it at home! via Chelsea's Messy Apron.

3

Salty Snacks

Ultraprocessed homemade swaps chips

Eat This! Seasoned Baked Tortilla Strips

Nutrition per 29 g: 77 calories, 3 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 82 mg sodium, 11 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 1 g sugar, 1 g protein (calculated with 6" yellow corn tortillas)
Number of ingredients: 8

Not That! Fritos Corn Chips, Chili Cheese

Nutrition per 1 oz serving (28 g): 160 calories, 10 g fat (1.5 g saturated), 270 mg sodium, 15 g carbs, 1 g fiber, 1 g sugar, 2 g protein
Number of ingredients: 24

Chips like Fritos aren't made by cooks—they're made by a team of food scientists who have found a way to hack into our natural desires and make food taste like…well, not food exactly. Something different. But something quite addicting. That could be from the disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate—both chemicals are versions of MSG, or glutamate, an amino acid found in protein. These MSG derivatives activate taste bud cells that release the "happy" hormone serotonin, creating a feel-good feeling that increases your desire to continue eating. When food scientists add it to your chips, they're hacking MSG's brain-signalling properties that would typically tell your body you're eating a healthy protein. Instead, you're eating ultra-processed junk. The homemade version? It's just corn tortillas, oil, and seasonings you'll find in your spice drawer—not in a chemistry lab.

Make it at home! via Baked By Rachel.

4

Frozen Meals

Ultraprocessed homemade swaps frozen meals

Eat This! Chicken Enchilada Zucchini Boats

Nutrition per serving (258 g): 318 calories, 8 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 187 mg sodium, 44 g carbs, 4 g fiber, 3 g sugar, 16 g protein (calculated with ¼ cup brown rice per serving and no added salt)
Number of ingredients: 14

Not That! Lean Cuisine Enchilada Suiza

Nutrition per package (255 g): 280 calories, 4 g fat (2 g saturated fat), 520 mg sodium, 51 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 7 g sugar, 10 g protein
Number of ingredients: 40+

These tantalizing frozen options are marketed as nutritious and convenient, so we can't say we blame you. But many of them are healthy-eating enemies in disguise. Just because they're touted as portion controlled and low calorie, doesn't mean you should stock up on these. Like this Lean Cuisine, many frozen prepared entrees pack a surprising amount of sugar—7 grams! Not only that, the 40 plus ingredient list is just completely unnecessary, and will fill you up with all processed foods. If you're really in a rush, pick up a rotisserie chicken at the store, along with zucchinis, onion, a bag of frozen corn and a can of tomatoes. Just a few seasonings from your spice drawer, topped off with shredded cheese, and you've got yourself a filling, healthy, preservative-free meal.

Make it at home! via Cooking Classy.

5

Soda

Ultraprocessed homemade swaps soda

Drink This! Sparkling Pomegranate Tea

Per 12 oz serving: 37 calories, 9 g carbs, 8 g sugar (calculated with 1 cup sparkling water and no honey)
Number of ingredients: 4

Not That! Mountain Dew Code Red

Per 12 oz serving: 170 calories, 46 g carbs, 46 g sugar
Number of ingredients: 16

Carbonated drinks might rank #5 in terms of percent of your daily calories, but they rank #1 when it comes to added sugars—contributing 17 percent! And sugar isn't even the worst part about some of these fizzy drinks. Mountain Dew has flame retardant in it. Yep, it contains "brominated vegetable oil," a patented flame retardant for plastics that has been banned in foods throughout Europe and in Japan. BVO acts as an emulsifier and has previously been associated with skin lesions, memory loss and nerve disorders in soda drinkers, all symptoms of overexposure to bromine. Even if bromine poisoning is enough to get you off the stuff, you might still miss that fizz and caffeine. Don't fret, just whip up this homemade soda. Naturally sweetened (and colored) with pomegranate juice (not HFCS and Red 40, Yellow 5, and Blue 1), this green tea drink offers a kick of caffeine, fizz from seltzer, and loads of free-radical fighting antioxidants.

Make it at home! via Skinny M's.

6

Pizza

Ultraprocessed homemade swaps pizza

Image courtesy of Simply Quinoa.

Eat This! Quinoa Pizza

Nutrition per 133 g (⅓ pizza): 288 calories, 15 g fat (4 g saturated fat), 700 mg sodium, 29 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 2 g sugar, 11 g protein (calculated with ½ cup tomato sauce and ¾ cup shredded mozzarella, and optional herbs)
Number of ingredients: 9

Not That! DiGiorno Four Cheese Pizza

Nutrition per 133 g (⅙ pizza): 310 calories, 10 g fat (5 g saturated fat), 770 mg sodium, 39 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 5 g sugar, 15 g protein
Number of ingredients: 19

When you eat foods like this quinoa pizza that have healthy, filling nutrients like the monounsaturated, oleic fats from extra virgin olive oil and the protein- and fiber-packed grains like quinoa, you're ultimately saving yourself from indulging in extra calories down the road that come with the inevitable blood-sugar crash from consuming highly processed frozen pizza. (And in reality, you're probably not going to eat just a 1/6th of a pie to begin with.) For more ways you can ditch the processed carbs, check out these 12 Flourless Ways to Make Pizza.

Make it at home! via Simply Quinoa.

7

Breakfast Cereals

Ultraprocessed homemade swaps cereal

Eat This! Vanilla Almond Granola

Nutrition per 28 g: 118 calories, 6 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 10 mg sodium, 14 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 5.5 g sugar, 3 g protein
Number of ingredients: 8

Not That! Fruit Loops

Nutrition per 29 g (1 cup): 110 calories, 1 g fat (0.5 g saturated, >0 g trans fat), 150 mg sodium, 25 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 10 g sugars, 1 g protein
Number of ingredients: 29

Indeed, the supermarket is filled with brightly colored boxes of seemingly life-giving grains all touting their "natural" ingredients, packed with "essential vitamins and minerals," promising to be "part of a healthy breakfast." In reality, most cereals, like Froot Loops, are primarily stripped of their natural fiber and nutrients, to oddly be added back in with a spray-coating of chemically-created vitamins and minerals for "fortification." And ironically, despite the plethora of color, all Froot Loops have the same flavor—"natural flavor"—along with trans fatty partially hydrogenated coconut oil. It's time to cut these artificially-colored, sugar-filled cereals to the curb. It's easy to whip up your own oat cereal in the oven with your favorite spices, following this homemade recipe.

Make it at home! via Sally's Baking Addiction.

8

Salad Dressing

Ultraprocessed homemade swaps dressing

Eat This! Homemade Italian Dressing

Nutrition per 31 g: 165 calories, 18 g fat (4 g saturated fat), 3 mg sodium, 1 g carbs, <1 g sugar, 0 g protein (calculated without parmesan cheese)
Number of ingredients: 12

Not That! Ken's Italian with Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Nutrition per 30 g (2 tbsp): 90 calories, 8 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 420 mg sodium, 4 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 4 g sugar, 0 g protein
Number of ingredients: 19

Just because Ken's claims their dressing is made "with extra virgin olive oil" doesn't mean it's the only oil they use. In fact, there's more vegetable oil from soybean and canola oil than EVOO so they can keep the calorie count down. Ken's also has ingredients like Monosodium Glutamate (to entice you to keep pouring it on—so much for that "low cal"), Xanthan Gum, added color, and "natural flavor," while the bulk of your homemade flavors come from seasonings like parsley, basil, oregano, onion, and garlic salt. Don't be turned off by the higher-calorie olive oil either, you might not even need it all. In one study, published in the journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, salads topped with healthy monounsaturated fats like those found in olive oil required the least amount of dressing (only 3 grams) to get the most carotenoid absorption—disease-fighting compounds associated with improved weight and fat loss. Polyunsaturated fat dressings (like soybean-oil-based dressings), on the other hand, required higher amounts of fat (20 grams) to get the same benefit.

Make it at home! via Sally's Baking Addiction.

9

Sauces

Ultraprocessed homemade swaps sauces

Eat This! Creamy Cauliflower Alfredo

Nutrition per ½ cup: 49 calories, 3 g fat (2 g saturated fat), 280 mg sodium, 5 g carbs, 1 g fiber, 2 g sugar, 2 g protein
Number of ingredients: 7

Not That! Newman's Own Alfredo Sauce

Nutrition per ½ cup: 180 calories, 16 g fat (9 g saturated fat), 820 mg sodium, 6 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 2 g sugar, 2 g protein
Number of ingredients: 17

Alfredo sauce on a bed of chicken and pasta is a comfort food go-to choice—but it's usually ridiculously loaded with carb-heavy fats. As for Newman's Own? It's also soybean oils, cane sugar, gum arabic, guar gum, and obscure ingredients like "enzyme" and "natural flavor." While even a homemade alfredo using heavy cream and cheese would be better than this ultra-processed junk, be creative and use cooked cauliflower. By just blending with sauteed garlic and onion, vegetable stock, milk, and cheese, it lightens the dish and drops the preservatives and calories. Get more ideas with what to do with cauliflower, in these 17 Genius Ideas for Cooking With Cauliflower.

Make it at home! via Pinch of Yum.

10

Sweet Snacks

Ultraprocessed homemade swaps fruit roll up

Eat This! Mango Fruit Roll Ups

Nutrition per serving (serves 8): 26 calories, 0 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 0 g sodium, 6 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 5.5 g sugar, 0 g protein
Number of ingredients: 1

Not That! Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups

Nutrition per roll: 50 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 55 mg sodium, 11 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 7 g sugar, 0 g protein
Number of ingredients: 14

Although you might be led to believe you're getting a roll up of strawberry fruit, these sweet snacks' first 5 ingredients are pears from concentrate, corn syrup, dried corn syrup, sugar, and partially hydrogenated oil (hello, trans fat!). In fact, there are no strawberries in it at all (well, perhaps they're lying in the "natural flavor")—that red you see is from Red 40, a coal-derived food dye that's been attributed to attention hyperactivity disorders in children. Make your own at home, it's super easy. Just 1 ingredient (mangoes), puree them, pop it in an oven for 3 hours and voila! Fruit roll ups.

Make it at home! via Just a Taste.

11

Ice Cream

Ultraprocessed homemade swaps ice cream

Eat This! Peanut Butter & Dark Chocolate Banana Ice Cream

Nutrition per ½ cup: 194 calories, 13 g fat (5 g saturated fat), 69 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 12 g sugar, 5 g protein
Number of ingredients: 4

Not That! Breyers Chocolate Peanut Butter

Nutrition per ½ cup: 180 calories, 11 g fat (4.5 g saturated fat), 135 mg sodium, 2 g fiber, 14 g sugar, 4 g protein.
Number of ingredients: 14

Even an all-natural brand like Breyers is considered "ultra-processed" because of the presence of items like carrageenan, mono and diglycerides, vegetable gums, natural flavor, and annatto (for color). And while you might argue that your homemade version is only just slightly lower in sugar, it's all from its source—bananas—rather than added like Breyer's does with refined sugar and corn syrup. We're pretty sure you can't find either of those sugar sources growing naturally on a tree.

Make it at home! via The Endless Meal.

12

French Fries

Ultraprocessed homemade swaps french fries

Eat This! Oven-Roasted Sweet Potato Fries

Nutrition per serving (5): 100 calories, 6 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 414 mg sodium, 12 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 2 g protein
Number of ingredients: 8

Not That! Ore Ida Sweet Potato Straight Fries

Nutrition per serving: 160 calories, 8 g fat (1.5 g saturated fat), 160 mg sodium, 21 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 6 g sugar, 1 g protein
Number of ingredients: 11

A raw sweet potato has more fiber and vitamin A than a raw russet potato, but once the food industry starts plowing modified food starch and rice flour into the produce, all bets are off. The only reason these homemade fries have close to 11 ingredients is because of the spices. Ore Ida? Besides sweet potatoes, oil and salt, it's a mixture of xanthan gum, annatto, disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate, and leavenings.

Make it at home! via Gimme Some Oven.

13

Ready-To-Eat Burgers

Ultraprocessed homemade swaps burger

Eat This! The Ultimate Burger

Nutrition per 1 burger (195 g): 260 calories, 8 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 710 mg sodium, 27 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 6 g sugar, 20 g protein
Number of ingredients: 3

Not That! Banquet Cheeseburger Sliders

Nutrition per 2 sliders (110 g): 330 calories, 18 g fat (8 g saturated fat, 1 g trans fat), 790 mg sodium, 27 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 3 g sugar, 15 g protein
Number of ingredients: 11 (not counting store-bought bun or cheese ingredients)

Discounting the fact that store bought buns might also have HFCS and your American cheese slice could have annatto, the few things your ground beef definitely won't have at home? Water, textured soy protein, soy flour, caramel color, soy protein concentrate, and soy lecithin. Is this a beef burger or an amalgam of deconstructed soybeans? That's how they try to get the calorie and fat count down—by replacing real beef with soy products. You're better off whipping up your own (normal sized) burger at home. It'll take you more time to preheat the oven for these nasty sliders than it will simply searing a patty in a skillet.

Make it at home! via Eat This, Not That!.

14

Instant Soups

Ultraprocessed homemade swaps soup

Eat This! Chicken Noodle Soup

Nutrition per serving (makes 6 servings): 225 calories, 3 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 418 mg sodium, 7 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 2 g sugar, 36 g protein
Number of ingredients: 11

Not That! Progresso Traditional Chicken Noodle Soup

Nutrition per serving: 100 calories, 2.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 690 mg sodium, 12 g carbs, 1 g fiber, 1 g sugar, 7 g protein
Number of ingredients: 25

Curer of colds, warmer of hearts, soother of souls: Chicken noodle soup does everything a comfort food is supposed to do and all without a hefty caloric price tag. Canned chicken soup, on the other hand, is sparse on chicken and vegetables and can carry an excessive amount of salt. For Progresso, it also means that instead of just adding extra chicken, they have to add chicken fat and protein substitutes like dried egg whites, corn protein, and soy protein isolate. Our version is light on the salt, and so loaded with chunky vegetables and shredded chicken that it could be dinner on its own.
Make it at home! via Eat This, Not That!.

15

Dips & Spreads

Ultraprocessed homemade swaps dips

Eat This! Real Guacamole

Nutrition per 30 g: 44 calories, 4 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 60 mg sodium, 2 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 0 g sugar, 1 g protein
Number of ingredients: 8

Not That! Dean's Guacamole Flavored Dip

Nutrition per 30 g (2 tbsp): 90 calories, 9 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat), 170 mg sodium, 2 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 1 g sugar, 1 g protein
Number of ingredients: 41

"Flavored" is the key word in this ultra-processed junk. This imposter is made mostly of skim milk (what!?), oil, water, and tomatoes. Oh, and less than 2 percent real avocado! So how do they obtain a guacamole-style dip? It's from emulsifying egg yolks, gelatin, a slew of gums and gels, and then thickening it up with isolated soy protein. And that green color you see? It's a combination of blue, red, and yellow food dyes. Stick with the real avocados to reap their abdominal-fat-blasting properties.

Make it at home! via Simply Recipes.