Some processed foods are way healthier than others.
After spending the entire afternoon in a too-long meeting, working late to meet a same-day deadline, and squeezing in a quick yoga sesh, nothing feels more appealing than tossing a frozen pizza in the oven or nuking your kid’s leftover mac and cheese for dinner. As quick and handy as these ready-made products are, you know you should be steering clear of the sky-high sodium, oils, sugar, and calories in these convenience foods. It’s natural to even feel a little guilty about eating “processed foods”; the phrase has practically become villainized among health-conscious shoppers.
But not all processing deserves the same bad rap. Food processing exists on a spectrum: Neon-colored chips, say, fall on the “ultra-processed” side and you should aim to eat them rarely; the opposite end of the spectrum includes minimally processed foods that contain healthy nutrients and also save you precious minutes (and sanity!) in the kitchen. (Let’s be real: Not everyone has time to mix, proof, and bake their own bread.)
Here are the minimally processed foods that can support a healthy diet, according to experts.
Canned beans: These quick and easy cans give you all the health benefits of beans and pulses, without spending hours soaking and boiling them yourself. Canned goods sometimes come with a hefty dose of sodium, but you can fix that: “Draining and rinsing them can remove the salt, extra starch, and metallic flavor often found in canned beans,” says Priya Khorana, doctor of nutrition education and exercise physiologist in New York City. Buying reduced-sodium canned beans can also help.
All-natural nut butters: A blend of just nuts and salt provides an easy source of protein, monounsaturated fats, and vitamin E. Choose all-natural blends, which contain just nuts and maybe salt, and avoid nut butters with added palm oil or sugar. Be extra cautious to avoid partially hydrogenated oil in your PB, which is a source of trans fat. (And here’s why you should avoid reduced-fat peanut butter.)
Unflavored, unsweetened yogurt: As long as you’re not buying anything that’s neon pink, plumped up with cornstarch and gelatin, and sweetened with aspartame, yogurt is a processed food you can feel good about eating. Yogurt is a prime source of protein and gut-healthy probiotics. If the tang is too much for your palate, mix in fresh fruit at home. Here are more healthy ways to enjoy yogurt.
Low-sodium canned tuna: This is an easy source of protein and omega-3s, especially if you don’t have access to fresh seafood. When possible, choose reduced-sodium varieties. Check out more great sources of omega-3 fatty acids here.
Rolled or steel-cut oats: Buy plain varieties and flavor at home with fruit and spices (like mashed banana, vanilla extract, and cinnamon). “Minimally processed steel-cut oats are an excellent source of protein, vitamins, minerals, and soluble and insoluble fiber,” says Khorana. “Choosing organic oats without added sugars are the way to go.”
Low-sodium canned tomatoes: Of all fruits and vegetables, tomatoes might be the most difficult to dice due to their soft and delicate texture. Save yourself some time and make pasta dishes with pre-diced or crushed tomatoes. Since canned tomatoes are picked at peak freshness, you may end up with more nutritional benefits than using a fresh tomato, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Whole-grain bread: Some people find the process of making their own bread therapeutic and calming, but not all of us have that kind of time or patience. The degree of processing in sandwich bread also exists on a spectrum, so be picky: Look for loaves with minimal ingredients, with the first ingredient being whole wheat. The American Heart Association also recommends bread with under seven grams of sugar and 240 milligrams of sodium per serving. Here’s more on the difference between whole-wheat and multigrain bread.
Hummus: Check the ingredients before you add this chickpea spread to your cart. “Hummus is made from garbanzo beans, [tahini], olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and sea salt,” says Sarah Mirkin, RD, owner of Kitchen Coach, which provides personalized nutrition advising. “These are the ingredients that you should find on the label.” Mirkin says to look out for vegetable and soybean oils, preservatives like sodium benzoate, or added artificial flavors. Added ingredients like black olives or roasted red pepper are A-OK.
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Heart-Check Food Certification Program nutrition requirements. Dallas, TX: American Heart Association, 2018. (Accessed on March 26, 2018 at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Heart-CheckMarkCertification/Heart-Check-Food-Certification-Program-Nutrition-Requirements_UCM_300914_Article.jsp#.WrkTDojwY2x.)
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What is clean eating? Infographic. Dallas, TX: American Heart Association. (Accessed on March 26, 2018 at https://healthyforgood.heart.org/eat-smart/infographics/what-is-clean-eating.)