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Processed foods get a bad rap, and that’s not always fair.
Sure, salty chips and sugary cereals aren’t a great source of nutrients; in fact, more than 70 percent of the sodium in the typical American diet comes from processed, packaged and restaurant foods, according to the American Heart Association.
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But there are plenty of processed options that are healthy. For example, “the milk you drink and the baby carrots you snack on are both processed foods,” says Christine Rosenbloom, a registered dietitian and coauthor of Food & Fitness After 50. “Processing helps keep foods safe and affordable and on our shelves a little longer.” It also makes food more convenient — think, frozen veggies and canned beans.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics places processed foods on a continuum, explains Nancy Farrell, a spokesperson for the organization. There are foods that are minimally processed (bagged spinach, roasted nuts); those that are processed at their peak (canned tomatoes, tuna, frozen fruit); foods with added flavors (yogurt, salad dressings); foods that are heavily processed (crackers, deli meat); and ultra-processed foods (soft drinks, packaged cookies, frozen pizza).
The key is keeping this spectrum in mind when making your food choices. So the next time you’re at the grocery store, keep an eye out for these 13 good-for-you processed foods.
1. Canned beans
Don’t have time to soak, rinse, boil and simmer beans? Opt for canned.
“These have two to three times more fiber than brown rice or quinoa,” Rosenbloom says. “They’re also a good source of protein, which older adults need.” Look for lower-sodium versions, or rinse beans under the tap for a few seconds — doing so, says Rosenbloom, can reduce the sodium by 40 percent.
2. Dairy or soy milk
Yes, milk is processed (hello, Louis Pasteur!), but that’s a good thing. “We don’t want to drink milk straight out of the cow,” says Katherine Zeratsky, a registered dietitian/nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic.
Milk is high in calcium, protein, Vitamin D, potassium and phosphorus — all important as we age. For vegetarians or the lactose-intolerant, go with soy milk. “It is the only plant-based milk that has complete protein,” Rosenbloom says. “It has 8 grams of protein per glass, all of the essential amino acids of cow’s milk and is fortified with calcium and Vitamin D."
3. Greek yogurt
“Greek yogurts tend to be high in protein and have quality micronutrients, especially calcium,” says Anthony DiMarino, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic, “and they often have probiotics that are healthy for our gut.”