Five ways to eat less processed food

Almost all foods on supermarket shelves have been processed in some way or another. So which heart-healthy foods should you be putting in your shopping trolley?

Woman in supermarket with child

What are processed foods?

Food processing is anything that changes the natural form of a food. It can be as basic as:

  • freezing i.e. frozen vegetables
  • canning i.e. canned tuna
  • drying i.e. dried lentils
  • baking i.e. roasted nuts
  • milling i.e. wholemeal flour.

Manufactured foods have varying levels of processing. Some examples of more highly processed foods include puffed rice breakfast cereals, snack foods like crackers and biscuits, processed meat products, ready meals and sauces. 

Of course, some foods need to be processed to make them usable i.e. olives can be pressed to make olive oil and milk needs to be pasteurised to make it safe to drink.

What makes some processed foods less healthy?

Salt, sugar and saturated fat are often added to processed foods for a variety of reasons, like making foods taste more appealing or to extend its shelf life. However, eating higher levels of salt, sugar and saturated fat than is recommended can increase our risk of heart disease.

Take sweet corn as an example. When found in nature, sweet corn is cooked and eaten straight off the cob. Corn kernels might also be canned or frozen, which means the sweet corn has undergone some processing but is still close to its natural form. On the other hand, sweet corn is used to manufacture corn-based products like corn chips and cornflakes. These foods are less like they are found in nature, lower in fibre and more likely to contain added saturated fat, sugar and salt.

Fresh corn on cob, corn in a can, popped corn, chips and corn chips showing how a food can go from natural to processed.

What are whole foods?

Whole foods are foods that resemble how they’re found in nature. Some foods like whole grain bread, plain milk and canned tomatoes have been through some processing, however most of the nutritional benefits remain and they’re still a heart-healthy option.

Some examples of whole foods and foods with minimal processing are:

  • fresh, frozen and canned vegetables and fruit
  • dried, canned and frozen beans and legumes like lentils and chickpeas
  • whole grains like oats, brown rice, barley and quinoa
  • fresh and frozen poultry and meat
  • fresh, frozen and canned fish and seafood
  • milk and plain yoghurt
  • eggs
  • nuts and seeds.

selection of whole grains, seeds, nuts, vegetables on a table

Choose foods from this list compared with more processed options. The more of them on your plate, the better for your body.

Five ways to eat less processed foods

1. Shop smarter

Fruit and vegetable stores, local markets, bulk bin stores and butchers are great places to stock up on whole foods and they can often be cheaper too. Buying whole foods can work out cheaper because the foods you buy are more filling than highly processed foods.

Try to aim for 40% of the food in your weekly shop to be vegetables and fruit. Shop seasonally and look for specials. Your produce doesn’t always have to be fresh – canned or frozen veges and fruit are great options too.

Basket of healthy food

2. Check food labels

While packaged foods can be convenient and tasty, many of them are highly processed. A long ingredients list full of words you can’t pronounce is one sign that a food is highly processed.

It becomes confusing when processed foods are marketed as ‘natural’, ‘organic’ and with ‘no added sugar’. Unfortunately, this doesn’t guarantee the product is heart-healthy.  

Check food labels by looking at the Nutrition Information Panel. Look for products which contain the least amount of saturated fat, sugar and sodium (salt) per 100g. When it comes to the 3Ss (saturated fat, sugar and sodium) - LESS is BEST. For example, rolled oats contain 5mg of sodium per 100g whereas some breakfast cereals contain around 400mg of sodium per 100g.

3. Cook at home

When you cook a meal from scratch you can control the ingredients and pack in plenty of whole foods. The trick is to have plenty of quick and easy ‘go to’ meal ideas like couscous salads, vegetarian meals, omelettes or stir-frys etc.

We've got plenty of quick and easy heart-healthy recipes to inspire you.

Herbs and spices on cutting board

4. Snack on whole foods

Snack foods are often highly processed. However simple snacks like fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds are some of the healthiest snacks around that will keep you satisfied between meals.

Try these simple swaps

Snack foodWhole food option
Nut bar, muesli bar, granola barNuts and seeds
Dried fruit or chocolatePiece of fruit or chopped fruit
Flavoured milk or yoghurtPlain yoghurt with frozen fruit
Potato or vegetable chips

Home popped corn or vege sticks and hummus

Carrots and hummus

5. Be realistic

Although it’s ideal to base meals and snacks around as many whole foods as possible, the reality is that many processed foods are also convenient too. Be realistic and focus on the bigger picture. There is no single food that improves our heart health – it’s our overall diet. Eating more plant foods like vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds and less processed foods will do wonders for your health and risk of heart disease.

Check out our nutrition factsDiscover healthy recipes
Lily Henderson, NZRD

Lily Henderson, NZRD

National Nutrition Advisor

I am passionate about improving the health of all Kiwis from young through to old. I have enjoyed working in nutrition in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.