Healthy Processed Foods: Not an Oxymoron

According to a recent report, more than 40% of Americans surveyed said “avoiding processed food was an essential part of a healthy diet.” Some may consider that attitude a victory for nutritional science. But the crusade against “processed food” is missing an important distinction. The truth is, for most of us, processed foods can be critical to a healthy diet. Processed foods exist on a spectrum ranging from minimally processed to ultra-processed. 

  • Minimally processed foods – Pre-packaged salads, cut vegetables, and roasted nuts 
  • Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness – Canned tomatoes, frozen fruits and vegetables, and canned tuna. 
  • Foods processed with added ingredients to enhance or stabilize flavor and texture, including sweeteners, spices, oils, colors, and preservatives – Pasta sauce, yogurt, and cake mixes 
  • Heavily processed foods – Ready-to-eat foods, such as crackers, cereal and deli meat. 

For example, foods that have been frozen, placed in containers, dried, cooked, vacuum-packed, washed, or had unwanted or inedible parts removed are considered minimally processed. Ultra-processed foods are the result of a series of industrial processes and chemical modifications like hydrogenation, as well as the addition of additives and preservatives so the food looks and tastes the same way every time and lasts forever on the shelf.  

While some additives, like added sugar, sugar substitutes, and dyes, make the food less healthy, many foods are processed to add nutrition. For example, milk is often fortified with vitamin D, and breakfast cereals often have added B vitamins, vitamin A, vitamin D, zinc, iron, and more. Wheat flour is enriched with folic acid, riboflavin, and iron. Certain processes like pasteurization reduce contamination, making milk, and other beverages, safe to drink. 

In general, ultra-processed foods are the real bad actors, and for the past several years, nutrition researchers have been making that distinction when publishing their results. But even some ultra-processed foods can have important health benefits. Many of these foods have been fortified with additional vitamins and minerals. So, what is an aspiring health-conscious consumer to do?  

First, let’s stop thinking that all processed foods are unhealthy. Second, let’s look at the ways in which processed foods can actually make it easier to create a healthy diet.  

Healthy Packaged and Processed Food Options:  

1. Pre-packaged salads  

Pre-packaged salads can be used as a side dish or your main meal and are a huge time-saver because all the work of chopping your vegetables is done for you. For the most nutrients, as well as a mix of flavors and textures, opt for salad kits that include kale, shredded brussels sprouts, broccoli stems, radicchio, seeds, and dried fruit.  

2. Frozen and canned vegetables  

It’s easy to forget about your fresh veggies, and often they spoil faster than you can use them. A great option is to get frozen and canned vegetables instead. A recent study compared frozen produce to fresh and fresh-stored (5 days of refrigeration) produce and found all three had comparable nutrients. Surprisingly, when there were significant nutritional differences, it was the frozen produce that had more nutrients than fresh vegetables stored in your fridge for 5+ days. That’s because frozen produce is frozen at peak freshness, while the fresh veggies in your fridge are losing their nutritional mojo. Frozen veggies like broccoli, string beans, and carrots are excellent additions to a quick stir-fry or soup. Canned vegetables are also an acceptable option because they are shelf-stable, easy to store, and last a long time. Canned foods can be high in sodium, so if that’s a concern, simply rinse them off before you eat.  

3. Frozen or canned fruit  

Like their vegetable counterparts, it’s easy to forget about fresh fruit or not be able to eat it before it spoils. Frozen berries and mango are a healthy addition to smoothies, yogurt, or oatmeal and are picked and processed at peak ripeness, so you can enjoy them in any season. Canned peaches are a great addition to yogurt and cereals. Look for canned fruit options that are packed in 100% juice instead of syrup to avoid added sugar.  

4. Oatmeal packets  

Oatmeal is a good breakfast choice for its combination of protein and fiber, keeping you fuller longer, and its potential benefits regarding cholesterol and heart health. Pre-packaged oatmeal is a convenient option, especially if you enjoy breakfast on-the-go, since all you need is a mug, a spoon, and hot water! Plain and unflavored oatmeal packets tend to have the fewest added sugars and make it easy to customize with your favorite fruit, like bananas or berries, nuts, dried fruit, or seeds.  

5. Canned soup 

Canned soup and packaged soup mixes make a great meal or meal base. Depending on the soup and your preferences, you can add frozen veggies or protein, as well as noodles or rice to increase nutrition and satisfaction.  

6. Pasta  

People looking to boost their health often eliminate pasta. But pasta can be a high satiety meal base, especially if you bulk it up with veggies or protein. Sauces, even those that come in a can or jar, can add additional nutrients (check sodium levels) and taste. You can also experiment with different kinds of pasta, like whole wheat, lentil, or chickpea, which have added fiber and protein to keep you satisfied for even longer.  

7. Yogurt  

Virtually all yogurt options available in a supermarket are processed. But many types of yogurt are very healthy, offering protein, calcium and probiotics. In general, Greek yogurt is best nutritionally and least processed. Check fat and sugar levels.  

8. Shelf-stable snacks and cereals  

There is nothing wrong with many shelf-stable snacks and cereals. Many breakfast cereals, contrary to popular belief, are fortified with extra nutrients. Other shelf-stable snacks will go a long way towards staving off hunger and boosting energy. Some options include nut mixes, beef jerky, and granola or protein bars. Make sure to find options low in added sugar and salt.  

What about that added sugar, salt and fat? READ THE LABELS!  

We don’t want to send you off to buy processed foods without giving you an idea of how to tell if there is too much sugar, salt or fat. Here are the rules of thumb: 

  • If the amount of added sugars is 10% or more of total calories, that’s too much sugar! 
  • If the number of milligrams of sodium is equal to or greater than the number of calories, the sodium levels are excessive. 
  • If the calories from all fats are 30% or more of total calories, there is too much fat 
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