Everything You Need to Know About Processed Foods

It's bedtime and my son is complaining of a tummy ache. He's been at a friend's birthday party and has eaten more than his fair share of "treat" food (read candy, cookies and chocolate sandwiches made out of plastic bed.)

He's groaning in agony so I rub his tummy and bite my tongue because I want to say...

"What did you think would happen if all you ate was candy?"

I know this is a good learning opportunity (for when he's feeling better.)

Childhood Obesity Is Increasing

We all know that obesity in both adult and children is on the rise in the developed world. As parents, we want our kids to eat healthily and grow up to be healthy adults. Except most of us aren't really sure how to do it or exactly what a healthy diet for children is.

Processed Foods and Kids Video by Dr Orlena Kerek

What is a Healthy Diet for Kids?

Clearly eating heaps of candy is not a healthy option but that doesn't mean never eating candy.

A healthy diet is not excluding one thing or eating lots of another. It’s about everything we eat and eating in the correct proportions.

This is what we’re aiming for.

Lots of fruit and vegetables. A bit of grains and carbohydrates. A bit of protein with a little bit of dairy on the side and drinking water. 

Most people, when they think about changing their diet, want to be eating more fruits and vegetables and eating less junk food.

A healthier diet is normally more fruit and vegetables and less junk food.

Junk food can either be junk food that we buy in a restaurant, but more frequently, it is food that we buy at the supermarket.

Woman doing grocery shopping #processedfood #packagedfood #readinglabels #understandinglables #healthyeating #healthymeals

What Exactly Is Wrong With Packaged Food?

Packaged foods covers a vast variety of different foods.

The food we eat is a living thing (or was before we picked it or killed it.)

The problem with most packaged food is that in the processing. In order to preserve it, they strip it of its nutrients (the good bits) and use poor quality ingredients.

Manufactors put in lots of preservatives so we're getting further away from those fresh fruit and vegetables that are good for us.

As a rule of thumb the longer it lasts, the worse it is.

What I’m thinking about here is those videos that you can see where they take homemade beef burger and they take one that has been made in a fast food restaurant. The homemade one goes moldy very quickly and the fast food one is fine thirty days later because they've added so many preservatives to it.

Different Ways of Preserving Foods

There are ways of preserving foods that are perfectly fine. You do lose some nutrients but the product that you have is still nutritious.

An example of this is dried fruit and nuts. If you look after them carefully in a vacuum packed container, they are going to last a long time. 

Equally, if you freeze food and vegetables then they will last a long time. So not all packets are bad and it's about knowing which ones are good and which ones are not good.

Woman inspecting the label carefully #processedfood #packagedfood #readinglabels #understandinglables #healthyeating #healthymeals

Is "Natural" Looking Packaging Healthy?

The first thing we look at is the packaging.

This is the packaging of a product called "Natural American Spirit". You can see that the packaging is focusing on this word "natural".

Many people read "healthy" when they see the word "natural".


Here’s another image that says ‘natural’ taste better and one hundred percent additive free natural tobacco. This is a cigarette company.

They don't add additives to it but it is still tobacco.

Here’s another image saying 100% percent gluten free.


You see this in food packaging too.

For example in kids’ sweets and candies, they write 100% gluten free. That’s because it's one hundred percent sugar and there is no gluten in sugar.

Another example is 95% fat free. 5% fat is quite a lot of fat!

It’s really easy to be taken in by the labeling. Don’t be taken in by the words and pictures on the packaging.

Young woman reading the label carefully at the grocery store #processedfood #packagedfood #readinglabels #understandinglables #healthyeating #healthymeals

How Do We Know What Is In Our Food?

Essentially, you should ignore the packaging and read the labels.

There are two types labels.  

Ingredients Label

One is the ingredients label, where they list the food's ingredients in order with most first. Beware of strange names that you have no idea what they mean and aim for names that you understand.

The shorter the list the better.

Beware of words that mean sugar because there are loads of words that mean sugar like syrup, dextrose, fructose, honey, fruit juice, sucrose, molasses, treacle, nectar, glucose, maltose, xylose, maltodextrin and caramel.

Related:  How Much Sugar is Recommended for Kids

The manufacturer of these products basically are trying to hide fact that the number one thing is sugar and if you read the label properly,  you will often see that they will have two or three of these.

You can see on the left that it lists the ingredients and these are listed in order. You can see in this they have listed sugar three times in different names.

Nutritional Labels

Let’s look at the nutritional label on the right hand side. You can see that this tells you the number of calories. At the right at the top it says serving size of two bars is forty two grams and servings per container six.

They state that typically one serving his thirty grams with 180 calories in two bars and that's quite a lot of calories.

Then they break it down a little bit more for us.

We look at carbohydrates which is broken down into dietary fibers and sugars. You can see that in this two servings 11 grams of sugar are in a bar that is 42 grams.

That means over 25% percent off this bar is sugar! If you think about in putting it in teaspoons that's two teaspoons of sugar.

When we really get down to it, we're looking at a cookie that has got a high sugar content in it.

Let’s have a look at another label. It starts with enriched flour which means they've added some vitamins to it. If you are eating a balanced diet then you don't really need extra vitamins.

If your child is under four the recommendations in the UK are that they take vitamins anyway.

Sugar Comes Under Different Names

You can see they put corn syrup (which is sugar) and they have put sugar. Then a little bit further down they put corn syrup solids, dextrose and high fructose corn syrup and all of these are different words for sugars.

(Check out How Much Sugar is Recommended for Kids for a full list of different names of sugar.)

Beware Ingredients with Funny Names

I have no idea what some of the ingredients are. If I start thinking that I don't really know what that is and I have to look it up, that makes me think I don't want to be eating it.

I once looked up an ingredient in a salad dressing and it was also used to clean runways!

Stick to simple labels with simple ingredients that you recognise!

Here’s another product label that says it has whole oats with brown rice syrup which is another sugar.

It has cooked rice crisps, which also include sugar and then they put some dried apple (which counts as added sugar), evaporated cane juice syrup which are sugar again.

They’ve got honey and pear and grape juice concentrate which are also types of sugar.

In these products they are putting in loads and loads of sugar and our children don't need so much.

Let's Inspect Yogurts

There could be a vast difference between one yogurt and another.

This label says the yogurt is gluten free. I know they like to put positive things in and I know that they want to clearly label things but I wouldn't expect gluten which is basically that you're going to find in flour in my yogurt.

I like this ingredient list because it's short and I recognise all the names. They have included a list of live cultures (which are those funny names.)

You can see here that this is really milk and that's good. Yoghurt shouldn't have lots of other ingredients.

This is another product label and this was from a fruit yogurt. You can see that this contains more sugar than it does fruit.

Buy Plain Yoghurt and Add Your Own Natural Ingredients

What I do is I buy plain natural yogurt and I add fruits to it.

Red, Amber and Green Colour Coding

This is a summary label, which they often put out on the front of foods. This is called the red amber green colour coding. You can see here that they have broken down of the things that we should be looking at.

The way they code this is green is low, amber is medium and red is high. Red is basically saying there was too much of this (not great) ingredient in this product.

Woman reading the label carefully while grocery shopping #processedfood #packagedfood #readinglabels #understandinglables #healthyeating #healthymeals

What Can You Do To Improve Your Kid's Diet?

We need to strike a balance between convenience and health.

Go and look at the products in your pantry and decide which ones are a disaster and that you don't want to buy.

Or perhaps you'd like to reduce.

For example, my kids get "chocolate cereal" (any cereal with a high sugar content) on Saturdays.

During the week we eat porridge, over night oats or a healthier cereal such as Bran Flakes or Weetabix. (They often do have sugar added too!)

Related: Healthy Breakfast Ideas

Related: 9 Easy Breakfast Ideas for Kids

Make Healthier Switchs

You don't have to stop eating treats entirely but you can make healthy switches.

For example, if you like to treat yourself and your kids to chocolate cookies at snack time. How about you stick to 1 chocolate cooky and some fruit?

Cook Your Own Treats

Cooking your own treats is a great way to know exactly what goes into your food.

Plus, if you're anything like me, you prefer not to cook so it just doesn't happen that often.

As long as you stick to the rule and don't reach for a packaged treat, it's a great way to reduce your sugar intake.

Check out our favourite no added sugar frozen yoghurt.

Or baked grapes as a really simple no added sugar dessert for kids.

Related: Quick and Healthy Snacks for Toddlers and Young Kids.

Your Plan of Action

  • Decide which you’re happy with
  • Look at sugar, salt, fat and whole wheat (good)
  • Stop buying (or limit) the ones you don’t like


Treats as Part of a Healthy Diet

Luckily for my son he does have a healthy diet most of the time. 

The next day, we have a chat about eating a variety of different food types and not just candy, candy and more candy.

I'm realistic enough to realise that next time he goes to a party, he'll eat more than his fair share of candy again but that eventually he'll learn that overeating makes him feel uncomfortable.

It's all part of him learning to set his own internal limits as he grows up and learns about healthy eating and a balanced diet.


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