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A Quick Guide to Picking Clean-Label Snacks

It’s hard to believe that not long ago, homemade foods were considered unfashionable. Packaged goods were the new, fancy, high-end option of choice. Since their invention, packaged foods have gotten more and more processed, and farther and farther from…well, food.

Recently, however, consumers have started to demand cleaner labels, and companies (both small and large), are beginning to deliver.

Now, packaged doesn’t always mean ultra-processed.


But when you don’t have time to make and package an on-the-go snack for yourself, how do you tell the difference between minimally processed, processed, and ultra-processed foods? Keep reading for a few quick tips for picking healthier on-the-go options.

First, what defines each of levels of processing, and why should you care?

Levels of “Processed”

Fitness formulary table for processed foods-1

While processed foods get an average of 2.4% of their calories come from added sugars, ultra-processed foods get an average of 21% of the calories from added sugars (yikes!). Excessive sugar intake, especially from sugary beverages, is associated with a myriad of health issues, from obesity to diabetes.

Top Tips for Picking Clean-Label Packaged Foods

picking clean label foods grocery aisle

1. Try to read and pronounce the ingredient list

  • Generally, fewer ingredients are better when it comes to packaged foods, but there are definitely exceptions to this rule
  • Ingredients that you can pronounce are usually safe
  • Here are some that may not be as scary as they sound:
    • Cellulose: A complex carbohydrate that gives plant cells their structure.
    • Xanthan gum: A gel-like food additive that’s made from fermenting a sugar (with bacteria). This soluble fiber is not digested, and is FDA-approved.
    • Inulin: A type of fiber made from fructose (a simple sugar). Inulin is “prebiotic”, meaning it supports healthy gut bacteria.
    • Ascorbyl palmitate: A form of vitamin C that is used to extend shelf life.
    • Phytosterols: A beneficial, plant-based ingredient that can lower cholesterol.

gummi bears artificial coloring harmful additives

2. Watch out for harmful additives

  • Here are a few that have serious potential for harm:

Fitness formulary table for processed foods-2

(Curious about the research behind these dangers? Check out 6 Harmful Additives Still On U.S. Food Shelves)

Processed foods yogurt and granola bar nutrition facts

3. Ask what effect the processing had on the foods included in the product

  • Did processing decrease the “good” stuff? (Fiber, vitamins, minerals)
  • Did processing increase the “bad” stuff? (Sugar, salt, fat)
  • If you answered “yes” to both these questions, the food is negatively processed and should be avoided for an optimal diet. For a more nuanced approach, you can break each of these two questions into two or three more specific questions. If you answer “yes” to the majority of the questions, the food will most likely go against your health goals instead of supporting them.
  • Here’s an example using this technique to compare two packaged yogurts. The plain option clearly comes out on top, qualifying as a processed food instead of an ultra-processed food.

Fitness formulary table for yogurt comparison

Packaged foods can be part of a healthy diet. Which tools from this post will help you decide which packaged foods to purchase for yourself and your family?

For some tried-and-true packaged goodies, Check out Staff Picks: Our Favorite Grab-and-Go Snacks.