Processed foods have a bad reputation. It’s seen as unnatural or unhealthy, but processed foods deserve a place at your table. Otherwise, how do you get veggies in February in Minnesota or dinner on the table before 11 p.m.?
There’s no reason to feel a little remorse about accepting help from processed or prepared foods. Processed foods can help prevent food insecurity and vitamin deficiencies while getting meals faster. They can also be more affordable than fresh produce and can help us eat more servings of fruits and vegetables each day. So go ahead and stock up on your pantry.
“You are not lazy to choose simple or convenient options,” says Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, of Street Smart Nutrition. “We don’t all have the luxury of a partner or family taking on household chores like cooking. If packaged or processed foods help you consistently put meals on the table without consuming your time and energy, that’s a good thing.”
Benefits of processed foods
It might be time to rethink our feelings about processed foods. Processed foods include whole foods that have been sliced, cooked, frozen, canned, or dried. Think peeled and dried beans, frozen broccoli, or canned peas. These are perfectly healthy ways to eat processed foods.
“When most people think of processed foods, they envision big packages of foods full of highly processed starchy staples or foods loaded with fat, salt, and sugar, but it’s important to know that not all processed foods are the same,” Cordiales says. Msora-Kasago, MA, RDN, media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Pasteurized milk, frozen vegetables, some foods made with whole grains, and even the meal kit you buy to make a quick salad after a long day at work are all processed foods, yet we include them daily as part of an overall healthy diet.”
Of course, there are different types of processed foods. Processed foods have little resemblance to what was caught or harvested, such as pieces of carrots, cooked meat, or roasted nuts. Conversely, ultra-processed foods are often broken down from their original state and reconstructed as something different.
“Instead of eliminating all processed foods, choose foods that are as minimally processed as possible and as close to their natural state as possible,” says Masura Kasago.
But even ultra-processed foods aren’t all bad. Cereals, for example, are fortified with vitamins and minerals that help prevent deficiency.
5 ways to choose more minimally processed foods
Here’s what to consider when shopping for processed foods:
1. Look at the labels.
“One of the drawbacks of some processed foods is the addition of large amounts of sugar, salt, or fat,” says Kristen Smith, MS, RDN, LDN, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Try to limit food products that list sugar or salt as one of the first few ingredients in the ingredients list. If it’s a carbohydrate-rich food, check the food label to make sure there’s at least 3 grams of fiber in the product. If the product has 3 grams of fiber on the Least. By choosing processed foods, try to choose options that are rich in fibre, protein or vitamins.”
2. Do not discard the ingredients.
When shopping, flip the packaging over to look at the ingredients list. A shorter list usually indicates less processing. It’s also a good sign if the ingredients are words that kindergarten children know (apple, peanut, milk). These foods are usually found in the vicinity of the grocery store. Nuts, grains in bulk boxes, dairy products, dried fruits, and meats are all examples of healthy ways to eat processed foods.
3. Rinse the salt away.
Canned fruits and vegetables are another example of healthy ways to eat processed foods. Look for fruit canned in 100% juice, vegetables, and low-sodium beans. You can also filter the brine and rinse beans and canned vegetables in cold water before cooking them. This helps reduce sodium.
4. Do not be afraid of fat.
Look for prepared foods with healthy fats that will keep you feeling full until your next meal. Nut butter with no added salt or sugar, hummus with just a few ingredients and a handful of nuts are all great examples.
5. Take the shortcuts.
Meal planning, shopping, preparation, and cleaning are time-consuming tasks. If using meal kits, canned, dried, or frozen ingredients allows you to feed your family along with your other commitments, use it!
Food is just one piece of the puzzle
“Health is complex, and one behavior — such as eating processed foods — is rarely enough to derail long-term health on its own,” says Harbstreet. “Remember that other actions in your general lifestyle also play a role, and we don’t need to scrutinize disproportionately on eating habits.”