Use these Healthy Food Swaps to Improve Your Health and Cut Out Processed Food
Many processed foods can be deceiving, with eye-catching labels like “plant-based,” “vitamin-enriched,” or “packed with omega-3s” that can mislead us. However, many of these highly processed products significantly contribute to declining health, illnesses and obesity rates affecting many Americans.
Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the seemingly impossible task of eliminating ALL processed foods from your pantry, consider taking a more manageable approach. Try swapping out just one or two essential kitchen ingredients each week. This gradual shift will give your taste buds time to adjust and help prevent food waste, while keeping your grocery budget in check. It will also make the transition easier for your family, making them more open to the change.
To help you get started on your journey to a healthier kitchen, we’ve compiled a list of commonly used ingredients found in pantries and refrigerators. This list will provide you with a great starting point!
Why Incorporating More Real Food into Your Diet is Important
Foods that undergo significant processing are often:
- Packed with added sugar, unhealthy trans and saturated fats
- Low in essential nutrients
- High in salt
- Brimming with artificial additives (such as preservatives, flavor enhancers, colorings and an array of mystery ingredients)
- Low in fiber, which can lead to issues such as constipation, digestive problems, overeating and weight gain
- Addictive, can contribute to the development of mental health disorders and have been linked to the onset and progression of chronic diseases
By adopting a diet that is centered on FfL-friendly, real food you’ll not only improve your overall health, but also help alleviate chronic illnesses that can be exacerbated by consuming processed foods.
Start with These Easy Swaps
Take a look at this list on a weekly basis and swap out one or two items until you’ve gone through the whole list. These little changes can truly make a difference in your energy levels, skin health and overall well-being.
Swap Conventional Eggs for Pasture-Raised
Sadly, most grocery store eggs come from hens that are kept in cramped, unsanitary industrial barns without access to sunlight or adequate space. This often results in health issues for the hens and lower quality eggs.
Eggs from pasture-raised hens who get to forage on a variety of natural foods like worms, critters and grass tend to have more omega-3 fatty acids and higher levels of vitamins A and E than eggs from caged hens that are given commercial feed. That means more nutritional benefits and value for your money!
When making the switch, look for pasture-raised eggs. Although local and/or organic eggs are fantastic choices, they’re not always an option. If you’re looking for quality eggs at the grocery store, we recommend Vital Farms and Pete and Gerry’s.
Swap Heavily Processed Bread for One Made with Real-Food Ingredients
Many commercially available breads, whether they be white or wheat, contain a plethora of processed and artificial ingredients that are unfamiliar to most people. Some examples of these ingredients include sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium stearoyl lactylate, monoglycerides, mono- and di-glycerides, distilled monoglycerides, calcium peroxide, calcium iodate, datem, ethoxylated mono- and di-glycerides, enzymes and ascorbic acid.
Transitioning from a bread that is heavily processed to one that contains fewer, natural ingredients is a significant move toward promoting healthier eating habits for your family. A local bakery is a great place to find FfL-friendly bread, but if that’s not possible, look for bread at the supermarket with ingredients you recognize.
It’s important to choose options that suit your family’s preferences and needs. If your family doesn’t like whole-grain bread, go for a white bread with recognizable ingredients. Dave’s Killer Bread is a good choice that carries both white and wheat bread varieties and can be found at most large-chain grocery stores.
Swap Table Salt for Unrefined Salt
Salt is an essential ingredient in cooking because it enhances the flavor and preserves the food. However, table salt is stripped of its minerals and contains anti-caking agents (which can be considered harmful).
Try swapping table salt for unrefined salt, which is rich in minerals and free from harmful additives. You can opt for sea salt or Himalayan salt, which range in color from white to gray to pink. You can easily find unrefined salt in most stores.
Swap Ultra-Processed Nut Butter for One Containing Only Nuts & Salt
It’s common for big companies to use tricky language to make consumers believe their product is nut butter. However, most jars found in grocery stores actually contain anywhere from 4 to over 14 unnecessary ingredients.
These products are often labeled as “spreads,” indicating that they’re made with less than 90% nuts. One jar we found even claimed to be sweetened with honey, but it was listed as the last ingredient after sugar.
Instead of opting for ultra-processed nut butter, it’s best to choose real nut butter made with just 1-2 ingredients: the nut itself and salt. Our go-to brand carried at most supermarkets is Crazy Richard’s.
Swap Ultra-Processed Mayonnaise for Real Mayonnaise
Swap out mayonnaise made with ultra-processed ingredients such as vegetable oils and soybean oils for one made from healthy, nourishing fats like olive oil or avocado oil.
Look for mayonnaise with basic ingredients like olive oil or avocado oil, vinegar or lemon juice, egg yolks, salt, rosemary extract (a natural preservative) and mustard seed extract. Reputable brands like Primal Kitchen or Sir Kensington (Avocado Oil Mayonnaise) are widely available at most major grocery retailers.
Swap Heavily Processed Salad Dressing for One Made with Real-Food Ingredients
When it comes to bottled dressings, many contain vegetable oils, canola oil, natural flavorings (with no clear source), refined sugars, coloring and preservatives.
Instead of using heavily processed salad dressings, try using store-bought dressings that have real-food ingredients OR make your own using uncomplicated ingredients like extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, and salt. If you decide to buy dressings, search for brands that have ingredients listed that you recognize and could find in a grocery store. Primal Kitchen is a great option because they offer dressings with minimal, real-food ingredients.
Swap Pancake Syrup for Pure Maple Syrup or Honey
Swap out table syrups or pancake syrups, which can contain some pretty heavily processed ingredients, for maple syrup or honey.
Pure maple syrup and honey are natural sweeteners. They don’t typically contain artificial additives, high-fructose corn syrup or other synthetic ingredients commonly found in pancake syrups. When choosing a brand, look for 100% pure on the label to ensure you’re getting the real thing.
Swap Margarine and Buttery Spreads for Real Butter
Butter and buttery spreads (like margarine) can serve similar culinary roles, but they’re two VERY different products. The key factor setting them apart lies in their ingredients: Butter is a natural product derived from the churning of milk or cream, while buttery spreads are a synthetic blend composed of artificial additives and vegetable oils.
During your shopping trip, search for butter that is made from 100% grass-fed cows or opt for trusted brands such as Kerrygold and Vital Farms. If you’re avoiding dairy, there are other options like coconut oil, olive oil, and clarified butter or ghee. (Although ghee is derived from dairy, it undergoes a clarification process that removes milk proteins, making it a viable option for many people with dairy sensitivities. Organic Valley is a reputable brand that carries an FfL-friendly ghee).
Swap Cheese Products with Real Cheese
Did you know that some cheese is labeled as “cheese food,” “cheese spread” or “cheese product”? These are NOT natural cheeses and have undergone significant processing, to the extent that the FDA requires them to carry these specific labels.
Avoid the cheese products created in a lab and choose cheese that’s made from milk (cow, sheep or goat). Before purchasing, check the ingredient list on the cheese. It should be simple, such as milk, bacteria (such as lacotococci, lactobacilli or streptococci), salt and a starter culture (such as rennet)—that’s it! You can find reputable brands like Kerrygold and Organic Valley in most stores.
Swap Ultra-Processed Plant-Based Milk for Real Plant-Based Milk
While plant-based milks, such as almond or oat milk, sound like healthy alternatives to cow’s milk, most of them are HIGHLY processed and contain an array of not-so-great added ingredients such as emulsifiers, added sugars, artificial and natural flavor (there’s that mystery ingredient again), thickeners and coloring.
When searching for plant-based milk, choose options with simple ingredients like water, nuts and sea salt. Unfortunately, we discovered that most brands available in supermarkets use highly processed ingredients and don’t disclose the percentage of nuts used. However, Elmhurst is one of the rare brands that meets all the criteria for being 100% FfL-friendly. If you can’t find Elmhurst at the store, most of their products can be purchased online.
Swap Flavored Yogurt for Yogurt Flavored with FfL-Friendly Ingredients
Many flavored yogurts sound healthy but are loaded with sugars, natural flavors (that mystery ingredient), artificial colorings, preservatives and sometimes even synthetic vitamins (difficult for the body to absorb).
Because a store-bought, real-food flavored yogurt is almost impossible to find, the easiest swap is purchasing plain Greek yogurt and flavoring it yourself with ingredients like honey, maple syrup, cinnamon, vanilla extract, fresh fruit, homemade jam or Homemade Cranberry Sauce (this is a personal favorite of ours). You can find reputable brands such as Stonyfield, Nancy’s and Organic Valley in most stores.
If you avoid dairy, try to find a plant-based yogurt that contains simple ingredients you could easily buy at a store and use in your own cooking. Just like plant-based milks, many plant-based yogurts are filled with unnecessary ingredients. It’s important to keep in mind that just because a yogurt is plant-based or contains probiotics doesn’t mean it’s made with FfL-friendly, real-food ingredients. The best option we’ve found at larger retail chains is Kite Hill’s Original Unsweetened Almond Milk Yogurt.
Swap Coffee Creamer for Cream and Milk
The ingredients in most coffee creamers are pretty concerning (they’re basically a chemical cocktail).
A better alternative to coffee creamer would be to use whole milk, canned coconut milk, heavy cream or half-n-half (from a reputable brand such as Maple Hill Creamery or Organic Valley). You can still achieve a coffee creamer taste by mixing heavy cream and milk in equal proportions and adding a dash of vanilla and maple syrup or try our Skinny Pumpkin Spice Latte Recipe.
Swap Kombucha Loaded with Excessive Sugar for Kombucha Sweetened with Fruit
Despite being promoted as an age-old health elixir by many health experts and news outlets, it’s important to note that most kombuchas are loaded with added sugar, sometimes even more than a bowl of ice cream. Additionally, certain brands include “natural flavors,” and who knows exactly what these are derived from in a laboratory.
Don’t be fooled by trendy terms like “probiotic,” “healthy gut,” or “raw.” When making the switch to a healthier kombucha, choose one that’s sweetened with real fruit and basic ingredients rather than refined sugar or natural flavors. We highly recommend the brand Synergy, particularly their gingerade flavor, which is sweetened with kiwi juice. Not all of their flavors omit added sugar, so be sure to check the label if you’re trying a different flavor combo.
If you’re unable to locate a sugar-free kombucha, be sure to carefully examine both the added sugar content and the bottle’s serving size. While it might state 12 grams of sugar, a closer inspection might reveal that there are two servings per bottle, resulting in a total of 24 grams of sugar if you consume the entire bottle.
Some Other Staples to Swap:
- Swap refined white sugar and brown sugar with coconut palm sugar.
- Swap white flour with whole-wheat white flour OR oat flour.
- Swap sprinkle cheese (with harmful anti-caking agents) for freshly grated block cheese (two reputable brands are Kerrygold and Organic Valley).
- Swap store-bought hummus (with lots of highly processed additives) for homemade hummus.
- Swap store-bought jam (with refined sugar) for the brand St. Dalfour OR homemade jam.
- Swap any vegetable oils in your pantry (which undergo extensive processing methods, including bleaching, deodorizing and refining) with extra virgin olive oil or unrefined coconut oil.
- Swap white rice for whole-grain rice (and simplify cooking with this kitchen essential).
- Swap croutons for pepitas (or any nut/seed).
- Swap cornstarch for arrowroot flour (which is non-GMO).
- Make popcorn on the stovetop or try Mary’s Gone Crackers or HU KITCHEN crackers rather than eating tortilla or potato chips (made with vegetable oils).
- Swap cranberry cocktail or sugary sodas for a glass of water or club soda with a tablespoon of cold pressed cranberry juice.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race!
Simply swap out one or two staple ingredients in your kitchen every week to gradually shift toward healthier choices. Don’t worry about completely removing ALL processed foods; instead, strike a balance by primarily opting for nutritious alternatives while occasionally indulging in treats and more heavily processed foods.