6 easy swaps for ultra-processed foods you didn’t know were unhealthy

We all want to eat well but when so-called healthy choices are actually ultra-processed foods, it can be tricky to know what to avoid. Here’s what to look out for.

With numerous studies pointing to health risks such as increased cardiovascular disease and obesity from consuming ultra-processed foods, we know we shouldn’t eat too much of them.

But sometimes it’s hard to know what classes as an ultra-processed food, making it tough to choose wisely.

What are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods are products that are usually high in sugar, refined carbs or fat (and sometimes all three) but often cleverly packaged to look healthy.

One study of almost 20,000 people in Spain over a 20-year period found more than four servings of ultra-processed food daily was linked to a 62 per cent higher chance of dying, with each additional serving increasing the risk by 18 per cent.

Australian research has shown that the increasing supply, distribution and consumption of cheap, tasty, accessible, convenient and highly marketed mass-produced products means we’re eating less and less fresh and minimally processed foods.

Nutritional experts are quick to point out not all processing is a bad thing and some processed foods are fortified with additional nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and fibre.

So how do we sort the good from the bad?

With the help of our experts, we’ve rounded up some common ultra-processed foods and the better-for-you food exchanges.

Generic vegetable oils extra virgin olive oil

“Refined vegetable oils such as canola, sunflower and rapeseed oils are most often extracted from plants using chemicals and solvents, heated at high temperatures and refined to a point they are chemically altered and become inflammatory,” nutrition coach Luke Hines says.

“Swap these for oils made through healthier processing such as cruising and cold pressing, in particular the heart-healthy extra-virgin olive oil and the MCT healthy fat containing coconut oil.”

Soda waters (even diet) → homemade carbonated water

Tempting as it may be to quench your thirst with fizzy drinks, soda water is processed with additives such as sugar and, at times, artificial sweeteners, dietitian Geraldine Georgeou reveals.

“Even diet sodas with zero calories are highly processed and research has shown soda water to be associated with obesity and diseases of metabolic syndrome,” Geraldine says.

“Try replacing with homemade-carbonated water with a slice of fresh orange or infuse with mint leaves and lime for flavour.”

Cocoa → raw cacao

“When choosing chocolate powder for baking, make sure you lean towards the terminology ‘raw cacao’ as it’s quite different to cocoa nutritionally,” Luke advises.

“Cocoa is usually the raw cacao after it’s been heated, treated and processed in some way, compared to raw cacao, which is the pure, minimally processed raw powder from the cacao bean and is rich in minerals, in particular magnesium.”

Fruit flavoured yoghurt → unflavoured Greek yogurt

“Yoghurt is an important food staple, providing calcium for our bones and live cultures to support gut health but surprisingly it falls into the category of ultra-processed food because it has added flavours, which increase the sugar content,” Geraldine says.

“Choose a yoghurt that is plain, unflavoured and traditional, with live strains.

“My favourite is an unflavoured Greek yoghurt served with a handful of fresh berries for added flavour.”

Crumbed frozen fish fillets → crumbed fillets

“I recently did some research on convenience foods, in particular crumbed frozen fish fillets, and was shocked to see that some contained less than 50 per cent actual fish, with the remaining ingredients made up of inflammatory seed oils, flours, fillers and thickeners,” Luke says.

“Swap this processed junk for a make-your-own, gluten-free crumb using free-range egg wash, tapioca flour and almond flour.”

Frozen meals → homemade pizza

“Stocking up on ready-to-eat, pre-packaged meals can be convenient and cost effective,” Geraldine says.

“However, studies have found that meals such as frozen pizza are packed with salt, sugar and fat, which can be detrimental to health.

“Cook a fresh, homemade pizza for yourself by spreading a thin layer of topping over pita bread or a wholemeal wrap and layer with leftover vegetables from the fridge.

“Don’t forget protein, such as a lean chicken breast, and then sprinkle with reduced fat cheese and bake for five to 10 minutes.”

Written by Liz McGrath.