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Processed foods have a bad reputation. They’re often automatically seen as unnatural or unhealthy – but is that really the case?
Experts say there’s no reason to feel remorseful about accepting help from processed or prepared foods. Processed foods can help prevent food insecurity and vitamin deficiency while getting meals made quicker. They also can be more affordable than fresh produce and can help us eat more servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
“You’re not lazy for choosing 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 who handles household tasks like cooking. If packaged or processed foods help you consistently put meals on the table without overtaxing your time and energy, that’s a good thing.”
Foods that have been ‘processed’ might include whole foods that were cut, cooked, frozen, canned, or dried. Think of shelled and dried beans, frozen broccoli, or canned peas. These are perfectly healthy to eat.
“When most people think of processed foods, they envision large packs of foods filled with highly processed starchy staples or foods that are loaded with fat, salt and sugar, but it’s important to know that not all processed foods are the same,” says Cordialis Msora-Kasago, MA, RDN, media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Pasteurized milk, frozen vegetables, some whole-grain foods, and even that meal kit you buy to whip up a quick salad after a long day at work are all processed foods, and yet we include them on a daily basis as part of an overall healthy diet.”
It might be better to make a distinction between ‘minimally processed’ and ‘ultra-processed’ – though even ultra-processed foods aren’t all bad. Cereal, for example, is fortified with vitamins and minerals that help prevent deficiencies.
“Health is complex, and one behavior — such as eating processed foods — is rarely enough to derail long-term health on its own,” Harbstreet says. “Remember that other actions in your overall lifestyle also play a role, and we don’t need to disproportionately scrutinize eating habits.”
What to Know About Evaluating Processed Foods
1. Look at the labels
“One of the disadvantages of certain processed foods is the addition of substantial amounts of sugar, salt, or fat,” says Kristen Smith, MS, RDN, LDN, spokesperson 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 ingredient list. If it’s a carbohydrate-rich food, review the food label to ensure there is at least 3 grams of fiber in the product. Try to choose options rich in fiber, protein, or vitamins.”
2. Consider the ingredients
Flip the package around to look at the ingredient list. A shorter list usually indicates less processing. It’s also a good sign if the ingredients are words kindergarteners know (apples, peanuts, milk). These foods are commonly located on the perimeter of the grocery store.
3. Rinse salt away
Canned fruits and vegetables are another example of healthy ways to eat processed foods. Look for fruits canned in 100 percent juice and low-sodium vegetables and beans. You also can drain the brine and rinse canned beans and vegetables in cold water before cooking them. This helps reduce sodium.
4. Don’t fear fat
Look to prepared foods that contain healthy fats that will keep you feeling full until your next meal. Nut butters with no salt or sugar added, hummus with minimal ingredients and a handful of nuts are all great examples.
5. Take the shortcuts
Meal planning, shopping, preparing and cleaning up are time-consuming tasks. If using meal kits or canned, dried, or frozen ingredients allows you to feed your family along with your other commitments, use them.