Is There Healthy Processed Food?

healthy processed food

If I suggested you should eat processed food, you’d probably not wish to hire me as your nutrition coach.  And I wouldn’t blame you.  After all, processed food is always bad, right?  Is there even such a thing as healthy processed food?  Well, not exactly.  It depends on how we use the word.  Think about it!  Oftentimes processing means washing fresh fruit, shelling nuts and wrapping veggies.  This is all technically processing, although it is true that when we typically think about food processing, we’re usually considering crap like mac and cheese or white bread.

What is processed food?  Is it all bad?

Again, processing is not always a particularly bad thing. But we have to agree on what this word means.  The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that processed food is any food that has been changed prior to eating.  That means that something as harmless as washing apples or bagging fresh greens counts as processed.  At the same time, food we would truly consider processed (in that it is a poorer health choice) includes stuff like bottled barbeque sauce packed with preservatives or cereal with lots of added sugar.

But let’s be clear.  When people talk, or write about foods that have undergone processing, they are usually referring to foods that has experienced significant alteration or addition.  Much of what comes in a bag or box is really what they’re talking about.  Snacks, candy, frozen food, soda pop full of sugar, etc.  These types of foods at best just don’t benefit you.  At worst, they can have negative health consequences.

What processed foods are good for you?

The Nutrition Nazis would have you believe there is no such thing as healthy processed food and if you don’t grow it yourself, it’s bad for you.  But let’s be practical.  There are many foods that undergo processing but still do some good for your health, even if they aren’t the “best” option.  For example, most of us buy eggs at the store because they are good for us.  Obviously, these are not as good as eggs from your own chickens, but how many of us have the time, energy or even live in the right area to legally have chickens?  Here are some excellent options:

Canned Beans

Beans are one of the best sources of both protein and fiber.  Protein is pretty much what we’re made of and fiber aids in digestion.  Of course, buying them canned is not as healthy as growing them yourself but again, let’s be realistic.

Frozen fruits and veggies

We all know that fruits and vegetables are good for us, especially when they are fresh.  But that means going to the store all the time because produce only lasts a short time.  It’s far easier to have a stash in your freezer that can last just about forever.  On top of that, there is very little processing that takes place with frozen fruits and veggies.

Packaged nuts

Seriously, who’s going to grow, and then shell, their own nuts?  That’s well…nuts!   A better way is to buy them in the bag or jar.  There is a little processing that goes on here of course, but for the most part, nuts are pretty much the same as if you grew them yourself.  However, salt or sugar may be added, so its better to find varieties that don’t include these.

Yogurt

Yogurt is a great food but most of us don’t even know how to make it ourselves and probably fewer have the time.  There are great, minimally processed options, but be careful.  Many contain added sugars or “fake” fruit.  The best option is plain yogurt, and you can add fruit if you wish.

Bread and crackers

There are no doubt crappy options here but there are some that are pretty good as well.  Look for whole grain bread and crackers that has some fiber.  For instance, only buy bread that has at least 3 grams of fiber per slice.

Read labels.  Make good choices.

Whenever you are considering processed foods, meaning those in a bag or box, look at what’s in it.  Avoid added sugar and preservatives and look for fiber.  Also, the more ingredients, generally the worse the option.  The best way to go is as fresh as possible but that’s not always practical.  So, when you do buy food in a bag or box, try to purchase relatively healthy processed foods.

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