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13 Processed Foods That Are Actually Good for You

Not everything that comes in a box, bag or can wreaks havoc on a healthy diet


Video: These Processed Foods Are Surprisingly Healthy

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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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.

spinner image opened can of tuna
Michelle Arnold / Getty Images

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.

4. Packaged salads or precut vegetables

Looking for a weekday time-saver? Head to the produce aisle. “You can now buy precut fruits and veggies — like bagged broccoli, cauliflower or carrots — and eat them raw, steam them in your microwave or add them to a soup,” Zeratsky says.

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Salad kits are also a popular option. Zeratsky suggests using less than what’s provided in the package to cut down on added sugars and salts. Choose a kit that has heart-healthy toppings such as nuts and seeds.

5. Cereal

Feel guilty about joining your grandkids for a bowl of cereal in the morning? Don’t.

“All breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamins and minerals,” such as iron and zinc, vitamin A, assorted B’s and D, Rosenbloom points out.  

spinner image Una mano de bananas
Nick Ferrari Photography

4 Levels of Processed Foods

  1. Minimally processed foods: Whole foods, such as vegetables, fruits, grains, meat and dairy
  2. Processed culinary ingredients: Things such as olive oil, butter, sugar and salt
  3. Processed foods: Including cheese, canned fish and canned beans 
  4. Ultra-processed foods: Frozen pizza, soda, fast food, sweets, salty snacks, canned soup and most breakfast cereals 

Research has found that ultra-processed foods are linked to health problems.

Source: NYU School of Global Public Health

Look for whole grains as the main ingredient and mix in a high-fiber cereal, or top with chia seeds, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids, calcium and fiber. Add milk and fruit to the bowl for a boost of benefits.  

6. Frozen or canned fish

“Fish are part of the recommended Mediterranean diet guidelines, and in a lot of regions of the country, fresh fish is not readily available,” Zeratsky says.

The American Heart Association recommends consuming two seafood servings a week. Unless you’re bagging your own trout, frozen fish (usually frozen on boats right after the catch) can be as good as fresh.

Watching your sodium intake? Many brands of canned fish (including tuna and salmon) have no-salt-added options.

7. Nuts, seeds and nut butters

“Protein helps maintain muscle for people getting into their golden years,” DiMarino says. “And nut butters have plenty of protein and heart-healthy fats.” But watch serving sizes — and check for no added sugar, salt or preservatives.

8. Tofu

Those soft little blocks of soybean curd can be a great plant-based protein alternative and are versatile enough to throw into a variety of dishes. “They can be a protein meal replacement, are low in sodium and have no cholesterol,” Farrell says.

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9. Frozen fruits and vegetables

Frozen fruits such as brain-boosting blueberries are great in the winter. “Most are picked in the field and frozen right away,” locking in their nutrients and flavor, Rosenbloom says.

The health benefits of fruits are aplenty. They are high in fiber and loaded with potassium, magnesium and vitamins A, C and K. As for frozen veggies, Rosenbloom says, try to avoid those in sauces, which usually contain extra salt and fat.

10. Precooked lentils or whole-grain brown rice

Wary of dry lentils? Look for the cooked variety in stores, and sprinkle them on a salad. “Lentils are [rich in] protein and high in fiber and sources of iron, zinc and magnesium,” Zeratsky says. Or try whole-grain-rice packages you zap in the microwave. “I prefer whole-grain farro, which provides a good source of protein and fiber,” Farrell says.

11. Chickpea pastas

Looking to swap your standard noodles for something a little healthier and heartier? “Garbanzo beans are a powerhouse carbohydrate that helps prevent chronic diseases,” Farrell says. “Chickpeas are best eaten in whole form; yet these pastas offer a good fiber and plant protein source to complement meals.” (Lentil-based pastas are another great option.)

12. Rotisserie chicken

Rather than fast-food or frozen chicken nuggets, opt for a precooked rotisserie chicken. Remove the skin (to lower fat and salt content) and eat as an entrée or in a salad.

13. Hummus

“Chickpea dips provide plenty of good nonbeef vegetarian proteins and have fiber, vitamins and minerals,” DiMarino says. Look for a short ingredient list: chickpeas, olive oil, tahini paste, seasonings, salt. Pair with raw, precut veggies — or, if you must have a cracker, go for a low-sodium, whole-grain version.

Honorable mentions

Protein-rich cottage cheese; olive oil (a cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet); tomato sauce (make sure it’s low in sugar and salt); zero-calorie flavored waters; pickles (a low-cal snack food); fiber- and probiotic-rich sauerkraut; dried fruit for snacking.

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