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.
Americans love their processed foods. A recent study by the NYU School of Global Public Health found that ultra-processed food consumption has risen across nearly every segment of the U.S. population over the past two decades and may be a big contributor to the obesity epidemic. According to a report this year from the National Poll on Healthy Aging at the University of Michigan, about 13 percent of people ages 50 to 80 — especially women and older adults who are lonely, overweight or in fair or poor health — are actually addicted to processed foods. That’s a concern because studies have linked highly processed foods to a greater overall risk of cancer (especially brain and ovarian cancer), dementia and death from heart disease.
Finding healthy processed foods
Picking processed foods that are healthy is simpler than it seems. Here’s what you should look for.
- Ingredients your grandmother would recognize
- Ingredients you’d have in your own pantry (so no emulsifiers, colorants, high-fructose corn syrup, foaming agents and the like)
- Foods you could make yourself (Cheese curls? Not)
- Foods with the fewest ingredients (A can of salmon is just … salmon)
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. 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, Rosenbloom says, 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 phosphorous — all important as we age. For vegans 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.”
Look for low fat and zero (or little) added sugar (5 to 8 grams). Ultimately, “the best thing to do is get a plain yogurt and put fruit on top,” Zeratsky says.