What Are Processed Foods and Which You Should Be Eating
Medically Reviewed by: Kelly Kennedy, RD
In today’s era of “clean eating,” many health-conscious eaters view processed foods with fear and disgust. But not all packaged foods are evil. In fact, most of the foods you buy in the grocery store have been “processed” in some way. Even whole foods, like fresh vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, have likely been cleaned, trimmed, shelled, husked, ground, or wrapped before they made their way to your grocery cart.
What Is Processed Food?
Technically a “processed food” is any food that’s been changed prior to you eating it, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. That means foods like bagged spinach can be considered processed foods, as the greens have been trimmed and washed before they make their way to your kitchen. Foods like jarred pasta sauces (with added preservatives and spices) and frozen microwave dinners are also considered processed foods because they’ve been prepped and have had ingredients added to them.
When nutritionists — and many health articles — refer to “processed foods,” they’re typically referring to products that are heavily modified and contain a long list of ingredients. Many packaged snack foods, sweets, frozen prepared foods, sugary drinks, and packaged meats fall into this category. Many of these foods have minimal nutritional value, so limiting them in your diet can do your health a lot of good.
Not All Processed Foods Should Be Avoided
That said, as the push to “eat real food” gets stronger and louder, I also think we need to be careful about where we draw the line between unacceptable and acceptable, and to avoid judging people who have a different definition of “processed” from our own. There are plenty of minimally-processed foods that are nutrient-dense and smart substitutes for less healthy fare, even if they do contain more than a handful of ingredients. These foods can also be big time-savers for people who are looking to prepare more homemade meals but need a little extra help to make cooking dinner realistic for their schedule.
If buying store-bought salad dressing helps you eat more salad, that’s a win in my book. If layering a little packaged granola with yogurt helps you or your kids eat a healthy breakfast, then that sounds good, too. Some brands are better than others, so as always, you want to read labels carefully, pay attention to sugar and sodium, and review the ingredients list to make a well-informed decision.
With that in mind, here are some of the “best of the best” packaged foods that can help add variety to your diet and make cooking fresh meals more manageable. Chances are you may not even think of many of these foods as being processed:
Canned Beans Fully-cooked canned beans are a convenient, ready-to-eat protein, and they’re often the gateway ingredient to making more meatless meals. Combine them with brown rice or quinoa and veggies for a hearty entrée, or add to a salad in place of chicken.
Frozen Vegetables and Fruits If it hasn’t been drilled into your head yet, frozen produce, like frozen berries or frozen vegetables, is just as nutritious as fresh, and there’s less waste since you can use only what you need and hold onto the rest for another meal. I use up my fresh vegetables early in the week and keep a stash of frozen blends on hand for later in the week, when the produce drawer is bare.
Whole-Grain Pasta Whole-grain pasta is a terrific weeknight dinner staple, since it takes less than 20 minutes to prep from start to finish. While your noodles are cooking, sauté some sliced skinless chicken and veggies in olive oil, and toss everything together just before serving. If you find whole wheat too grainy, try brown rice or quinoa varieties. You’ll also find that different brands have different tastes and textures. So if you don’t like the first variety you try, keep on trying!
Nut Butters and Packaged Nuts If you keep a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of whole-grain bread stocked in the house, you always have a simple meal at your disposal. While seasoned canned nut blends may have more sugar or salt than plain varieties, they’re still a huge improvement over empty carbs, like chips and cookies.
Yogurt If you prefer the convenience or flavor of premixed fruit yogurts to plain yogurt, just be sure to check the sugar content before you buy. Look for varieties that list real fruit ahead of sweeteners on the ingredients list and ideally contain less than 18 grams of sugar per serving; that’s about 2 to 2 ½ teaspoons of added sugar, in addition to the naturally occurring lactose in yogurt, and fructose in fruit. For an even healthier option, eat plain yogurt and add your own fresh or frozen fruit.
Bagged Popcorn Popcorn is a whole grain, and many bagged brands contain just three ingredients: popcorn, oil, and salt. When you’re craving something snacky, it’s a great alternative to chips and pretzels.
Hummus If you’re not inclined to make your own hummus, pick up a tub of this heart-healthy spread for dunking vegetables at snack time and layering on sandwiches at lunch.
Individually-Portioned Cheese String cheese, snack-size squares, and mini rounds are perfectly portioned for those who have a hard time sticking to just a few slices.
Canned and Frozen Fish Canned Alaskan salmon is about one-fourth the cost of fresh wild salmon and is shelf-stable, so you don’t have to worry about buying it the same day you plan to cook it. Frozen, individually-wrapped filets are another hassle-free option if you’re looking to eat more fish.
Jarred Marinara Sauce and Salsa There are plenty of great marinara brands with minimal ingredients on store shelves, so why not save some time where you can? The same goes for salsa. Keep a jar on hand and you can transform staples like chicken, beans, tortillas, and brown rice into easy, well-loved meals, like tacos and burrito bowls.
Whole-Grain Breads and Crackers Bread is a grocery list staple for a reason: Toast is the perfect breakfast solution when you’re short on time — just top with nut butter, avocado, sliced egg, or ricotta for a simple meal you can eat on your way out the door. Hearty, fiber-rich crackers make a satisfying snack when paired with cheese or hummus.
Naturally Flavored (Unsweetened) Seltzers and Waters Seltzer waters with natural flavors are great options if you’re trying to avoid sugary or diet drinks but get bored with plain water. Their fruity flavor keeps your taste buds engaged without relying on real or artificial sweeteners.
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