Open thread: What is the worst processed food in your opinion?

The Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Community asked the question this week:

What is the worst processed food?

What a great question! What are your thoughts? And in case you missed this earlier this week, many, many, many of you sent me this link: Pre-Chicken Nugget Meat Paste, AKA Mechanically Separated Chicken WARNING: It’s a gross photo and there are some informative videos on the post too.

You know how I feel about nuggets, but are chicken nuggets the worst processed food? I think there are worse foods….

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47 thoughts on “Open thread: What is the worst processed food in your opinion?

  1. I know you've already covered hot dogs here, but to my mind they are among the worst offenders, with chicken nuggets coming in an extremely close second, if not tied. And I mean the mainstream hotdogs, not the organic, preservative-free ones.

  2. My first instinct was to say chicken nuggets because kids are practically addicted to them (I know I lived on a chicken nugget diet for most of my childhood), but can I cheat and say that high fructose corn syrup is the worst processed food?

    It's an ingredient, not a food – I know that, but it certainly has invaded our food supply. I think I'm going to go with that, even if it is kind of cheating.

  3. Offhand, I'd nominate corn syrup, because of its ubiquitous nature. Sweetened drinks alone must account for a huge portion of unnecessarily calories consumed by children and adults.

  4. Haha- I'm not going to make a value judgement on any one food….but for me spray cheez is just too weird and processed to even contemplate what it might contain.

  5. I have to say, I agree with the above poster about High Fructose Corn Syrup. It is in everything these days. You really have to read labels to avoid it. Now in the latest ad campaigns the manufacturers are calling it corn sugar like that makes it all better. I still don't want to consume it in the mass quantities.

  6. other than chicken nuggets I'd say: cheese whiz / cheese in a can etc.

    The healthiness of regular cheese may be debatable, but those processed cheeses are just disgusting in my opinion.

  7. I think Breakfast cereal is the worst. even some of the good ones, like Cheerios, are not providing what a kid needs (protein!) to make it until lunch time. I'd rather see a kid eating a slice of pizza on the way to school than getting a bowl of cereal as breakfast.
    I know things like pop-tart are worse for you, but I think the cold-cereal breakfast is the worst invention ever.
    Full disclosure-I like cold cereal as a snack/treat, but not as the sole source of nutrition at the beginning of my day.

  8. Just as a note, if you check Snopes, not all of the info about the chicken nuggets is the whole truth. Although I agree that they are hardly healthy, and the process is gross, the truth is less damning than it is made out to be.
    Snack cakes are definitely up there in the bad processed food list, for me at least. They offer absolutely nothing but sugar and fat.

  9. I would say it's the processed cheese. Often there is very little actual dairy product. I once got a glance at the ingredients in the cheese at one of the sandwich chains. Shockingly there was pork fat. What does pork have to do with cheese in any way shape or form. Yuck!

  10. OK, I'm going to be in the minority here — but, protein bars and sports drinks. Sports drinks may be good for marathon runners — and protein bars, too. But for anybody, kids included, doing a regular amount of exercise, they are simply glorified candy bars and soda. They make us think they are healthy, because of the sports marketing. In reality there's nothing at all healthy about them (read the labels sometime).

  11. I totally agree about the sports drinks and bars, but in keeping with the theme of your blog I'd have to nominate Lunchables as the worst processed food offender! How can consumers excuse the huge calorie, sodium, and fat counts in these "lunches" that are otherwise devoid of nutritional value? Even the "improved" Lunchables take what should be a wholesome turkey sandwich and turn it into fake fare with more than 100 ingredients. Check the label…it reads more like a science lab than a lunch.

  12. Sodas, especially those made with corn syrup. I agree with all the others mentioned so far, chicken nuggets, processed cheese, etc, but at least all those may have a little bit protein or something useful in addition to all the preservatives and non-food ingredients. Soda on the other hand is just liquid candy, a concoction of corn syrup and chemicals, with zero nutrients of any sort. And because it is in liquid form it's easy to consume it in large quantities and some people apparently do, treating it as a replacement for water.

    Next in line I would say diet sodas which are just concoctions of chemicals in liquid form, again with absolutely zero nutrients.

  13. I don't know if this is necessarily one of the worst processed foods, but one thing that gets to me is "juice" boxes or "fruit" snacks. And I'm referring to the ones that are made up of water and sugar/high fructose corn syrup, not the 100% juice/fruit. I was a preschool teacher and all of the juice boxes I saw were of the Capri Sun-type variety without any actual juice. The reason I see this as such a problem is because I think it is misleading to many people (who don't take the time to read ingredients). Parents pick up a cheap pack of juice boxes thinking they are giving their children fruit juice for lunch when they are really giving them the equivalent of pop for lunch. The same goes for fruit snacks.. some parents think they count as a serving of fruit when they are really just sugar with fake fruit colors.

  14. Don't tell my father-in-law because he's a Little Debbie distributor, but I'm going to say snack cakes are right up there. Have you seen that photo of the ingredients in a twinkie all separated into little glass bowls? Those things are all chemicals and not the least bit food. They are designed to be around long after humans have left this earth. Yuck!

  15. Anything that contains chemicals to keep it fresher for longer. Anything that contains products (like the pork fat in processed cheese crafty nerd posted) that have nothing to do with the actual item.

  16. Generic, government grade processed cheese that is the staple of oil based fat sheets (sic?). I am convinced that some internet troll screened the 'our cheese has no holes' irony.

    I also may throw in most Diet Drinks, hardly by their taste, but by their nature of being "diet" sugar drinks. I find Coke Zero a superior balance.

    Mashed potatoes found in the frozen food trays, Banquet makes simply the worst if not the most ghetto frozen food. It really is not hard to make good microwave/oven dishes in frozen isle format. I've had Mary Calenders frozen entree's, give them a shot.

    Most fruit drinks, like the welfare-born beverages, which don't even classify as "juice" but "______ flavored drink" of dubious origin. Believe it or not sold in Dollar stores.

    Monster energy falls under the category as one of the worst because of how ineffective their gimmicky concoctions are. Just because they do not taste as "alkaline" as Red Bull, does not justify how I completely missed the buzz after sipping the Java variety. Left a nice upset stomach with a hideous bathroom session.

  17. As a lunch lady, the first thing that comes to mind is the liquid cheese we would ladle out for nachos. We don't serve that at my school anymore, thank goodness! My second choice would be those uncrustables PBJ sandwiches. I tried them once and the outer "bread" was doughy and disgusting. The whole thing tasted icky and wasn't anything like real a PBJ sandwich.

  18. I think of more of a list of ingredients….and some of those things you might not expect….I have removed these from our home menu.

    American Cheese,
    Soybean Oil,
    High Fructose Corn Syrup

    There are so many processed foods out there, and some of them are more nefarious than others.

  19. This is almost like a trick queston…there is so MUCH really bad processed food like substances on the shelves. I would like to make a blanket statement about HFCS, but that isn't what you want. I agree with so much of what the other comments have said the neon nacho cheese, the cheese that isn't (like velvetta and cheese in a can)the protein bars some even marketed to kids now that are candy, juice that isn't juice. In fact Dr.SuRu will tell you that Juice is just as bad for teeth as Soda.
    I'll list my worst for Adults and my worst for children:

    the worst processed item for for adults: Soda.

    The worst most insidious processed food for kids is flavored low-fat milk.

    It is in almost all schools, if kids have a choice they will pick a flavor over plain milk. They are getting calories from sugar or HFCS instead of the Good Fats from Whole milk that their brains need to function well. Good fats that would not make them gain weight like the sugar does. AND the Milk people are being aggressive about keeping flavored milk on the table.

  20. I can't include things like bologna and hot dogs in a list of worst processed foods. Sausages like these have been made for hundreds of years. Bologna is essentially mortadella which has been made since at least the 14th century. Frankfurters are almost as old. They key is to buy high-quality sausages and not the cheap Sweeney Todd mess.

    As for what I'd put high in the list, HFCS would be up there, but not for the health claims. Far too much arable land in the US is used for growing corn to produce HFCS, land that could instead be used for growing real food.

  21. Too many choices! There are actual categories we could compare.

    I'd choose two things: First, that gross meat (crawling with bacteria, washed with ammonia, reflavored artificially!!!) that goes into nuggets and hot dogs. Second, I'd pick the processed desserts, of the hostess etc. variety, which are usually just petroleum and HFCS.

  22. I'd have to say boxed macaroni and cheese…powdered cheese? C'mon…really? It's just disgusting!

  23. American Cheese!! I refuse to eat it..its gross! Id also put Cool Whip on the list..WHAT is it?

  24. I'm voting for those little wax bottles with the liquid in them. I mean, come on. WAX? You chew on WAX???

  25. As much as chicken nuggets and conventional hot dogs make me cringe, I have to pick soda, especially cola, both regular and diet, as the worst of the worst. That's because I see so many people guzzling soda, mostly cola, with every meal and in between. I admit that I was once one of those people. I'm a tap water and iced tea girl now.

    Colas (and many other sodas) contain phosphoric acid which is a problem for your bones for a couple of reasons. First, it prevents absorption of vitamin D (unfortunately, caffeine may intensify this effect). Second, phosphoric acid may cause the structural web of your bones to disintegrate. In my opinion, cola should never be given to children, and pregnant or nursing women should never consume it. There's also evidence that phosphoric acid has detrimental effects on your kidneys. Yet another issue with soda is that many types (including cola) contain sodium. Of the sodas that do contain sodium, the amount per serving is typically small but if you're downing 6 cans or a couple of liters of the stuff every day, you could be drinking 1/3 or more of the US RDA of sodium. Soda drinkers beware!

    Does anyone remember Dream Whip? It's powdered stuff you mix with milk and whip to make a whipped cream-like substance. This was innovative and cutting edge food back in the 1960's before frozen Cool Whip became popular. What's that line from the early SNL skit with Dan
    Akroyd and Gilda Radnor? "Honey, new Glimmer is both a floor wax *and* a dessert topping!" 😛

    I also have a gripe with companies that play fast and loose with words like "healthy" or "light" or "natural" when describing their products. For example, the fast food chain Chipotle emphasizes how fresh and wholesome their ingredients are and while I can buy into that claim to a large degree, I discovered recently that what Chipotle doesn't tell you is that their food is seriously overloaded with sodium.

    The 2 items that surprised me the most on Chipotle's nutritional guide are their salad dressing and the tortilla used in their burrito. A serving of salad dressing contains 700 mg of sodium and the tortilla contains just under 700 mg (US RDA is 2,200 to 2,400 mg). Mind you, these are just components of dishes, not entire dishes in and of themselves. Chipotle doesn't provide nutritional data for entire dishes presumably because customers "build" their own dishes by selecting meat or tofu, beans or rice, cheese or sour cream, and one of 4 salsas. Each of these components, except the sour cream, contains hefty levels of sodium. Add up the components and a complete salad or burrito easily contains 1/2 to 2/3 of the RDA of sodium. I find that appalling! I've emailed the company about this issue but haven't heard back yet. They claim to reply to every email. I'll share their response once I hear from them.

  26. BillG, the unfortunate thing about hot dogs in school lunch today is that they're typically the "cheap Sweeny Todd mess" variety. (Your description is priceless!) And your point is well taken that hot dogs and sausages were not always made the way conventional varieties are made in this country today. We've really lost our way as a culture in terms of food production.

  27. It's the processed foods doled out through the USDA commodity foods programs to school lunches- all of them – chicken nuggets, frozen pizzas, mozzarella sticks – not because they are the worst imaginable foods but because they are quite bad and handed out every day to 30 million school children. They are unhealthy the first time they are eaten, the 30 millionth time, and every time after that as school children "learn" that this is what lunch should be like. In Sea Cliff, NY we're trying to expose what's in these foods and we hope other school districts will join us.

  28. Nutrigrain bars. Mainly because of the misnomer. High fructose corn syrup is listed 3 times on some varieties of these bars. There is nothing nutritious about these and I nominate them mainly because of they way they insinuate how healthy they are. At least with a chicken nugget, you KNOW it's garbage when you eat it.

  29. Totally Nutri-Grain cereal bars. They're billed as being this great thing because they have whole grains and "real fruit" but 3 of the first 5 ingredients in the filling are sweeteners (high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and sugar). The whole grain crust is junk as well, also pumped full of hfcs and more chemicals than I care to note.

  30. I gotta go with Cheez Whiz, that spray cheese in a can, or any other type of "processed cheese food" or cheese-like substance.

  31. I have to agree with most of this, but I was thinking of the nutrigrain bars too, because we used to get them as snacks all the time, but discovered the food coloring in them (which my son can't have) and then realized that even they need to be dropped from our diets. I don't buy anything premade any more. nothing. Too much junk. we all feel so much better not eating chips and stuff. I have a lot more energy than I used to.

  32. velvetta was my first thought. Cheez Whiz is just as bad, though people try to use Velvetta as "real" cheese (i.e. veggie casserole smothered in Velvetta) while Cheez Whiz seems to be more of a "condiment".

  33. I think the worst INGREDIENT is HFCS and/or food dyes. In fact I just wrote up a huge post all about HFCS.

    The worst food IMO is ramen noodles. Refined white flour, MSG, salt. But the reason why they are the worst is because so many people try to live off of them. Eating ramen once a month is bad but not terrible, but having it 10 times a week is soooo bad.

  34. LOVE LOVE LOVE all of the comments. I would agree that soda is pretty much empty calories. My dad claims that drinking diet pop is ok, but I have to wonder what the point is?

  35. Mrs. Q, tell your dad to check the ingredient list on his diet pop. Some bottlers are now adding HFCS to their "diet" soft drinks. Diet Sunkist is one. Thank you very little, Sunkist. Remember their TV commercial a few years back? The narrator told us that if an orange doesn't have a label that says "Sunkist" on it, you never know what's inside. Hmmm….

  36. Did you guys see that Chipotle is teaming up with Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution for Halloween? The past few years, if you dressed up like a burrito, you got a free entree. This year, they want you to dress up as a scary processed food item! There will be a nationwide costume contest, too. Then you'll get an entree for $2 and the proceeds with go to the Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution.

  37. Emaline,

    You're right, Cool Whip is both disgusting and really bad for you. What is it? Sweetened whipped hydrogenated oil. Basically, whipped sweetened Crisco. Yum!

    And that's my worst processed ingredient – partially hydrogenated oil (aka trans fat), and it's in almost as many products as HFCS. But you can guarantee that almost all store-bought baked goods contain it, and the frosting on most bakery cakes is just sweetened shortening as well. So treats from mainstream bakeries are my worst processed food item.

  38. Ugh. Everyone pretty much hit all of my picks: HFCS, Cheez-wiz, American cheese, crappy hot dogs, Lunchables, etc. My idea of hell in a lunch bag is a Mt. Dew soda, Lunchables, and one of those truck stop fruit pies–you know, the ones that are shaped like calzones? Terrible.

    Any one of these things once in a blue moon is fine, but for many, it's a way of life. :-/

  39. I met a hitchhiker who said he saw a "sno-ball" snack cake on the side of the freeway, unwrapped and still fully intact. Even the ants wouldn't touch it! Mold-free!

    Even more sickening are the opening words on the Hostess website describing the product: "Since being introduced in 1947, Sno Balls have become an enduring icon enjoyed by generations of snack cake lovers who can’t get enough of the delicious and distinctive marshmallow, coconut and chocolate cake combination. Today, over 25 million Sno Balls are sold each year. "

    25 million?!?!?

  40. Cup ramen has got to be up there, or anything in styrofoam that you simply pop the lid off, fill with steaming hot water, and wait a few moments to eat. I live in Tokyo where there's so much good food (and ramen, of course!) that it's unbelievable.

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