Many of us are trained to associate “processed foods” with the word “unhealthy.” And while there’s no universal definition for “healthy” (spoiler alert: we’re all different and have different patterns of eating), we tend to think about fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and complex carbohydrates as the epitome of health.
And while those are very nutrient-dense foods that we want to encourage people to eat, there are also many nutritious foods found in the middle aisles of the grocery store. In fact, many foods that we consider “processed” are actually providing necessary nutrients, and may be the preferred, affordable and/or accessible option for many people.
What are processed foods?
Food processing refers to making food suitable for consumption, cooking, or storage. This can involve one or a combination of various actions, such as washing, chopping, pasteurizing, freezing, fermenting, packaging, and cooking, to name a few. There are several practical reasons for food processing, such as improving self life, reducing the risk of food spoilage or waste, improving palatability, food safety, and convenience.
Nutrition in processed foods
What about sugar and sodium in processed foods? What should we home in on, and what should we avoid?
“When it comes to foods to limit or avoid, I recommend assessing foods based on their overall nutrition value versus how they’re processed or packaged,” says Amanda Blechman, RD, CDN, director of Health & Scientific Affairs at Danone North America.
“Not all food processing equates to an unhealthy food,” adds registered dietitian Eden Davis, co-owner of Pearl Wellness. “For example, fortification is the practice of deliberately increasing the content of one or more micronutrients in a food to improve the nutritional quality of the food supply, and provide a public health benefit with minimal risk to health.”
Davis goes on to share that these vitamins and minerals that are added into foods were either lost during processing or were added because they are lacking in the average diet, such as the nutrients of public health concern. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines list calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and fiber as four key dietary components of public health concern. Many processed foods thus have these nutrients added in to help vulnerable Americans increase intake.
To reduce the confusion around processed and packaged foods, we asked dietitians to share examples of nutrient-dense processed foods that actually are adding nutrients to your diet and how to include more of them.
10 nutrient-dense processed foods to eat more often
1. Canned beans
Canned beans are a prime pantry staple for many people and provide an easy and convenient way to add flavor, protein, fiber, and several micronutrients to many different dishes. Plus, they are also a cultural staple for many people. “To reduce sodium intake, opt for low-sodium beans or rinse them before enjoying,” offers Moushumi Mukherjee, RD. Rinsing beans can reduce the sodium intake by up to 40 percent.
2. Breakfast cereals
While some cereals are higher in sugar, others do have a relatively low amount, while providing other nutrients of concern, like calcium and potassium. Catherine Karnatz, MPH, RD, says, “Breakfast cereals are commonly fortified, making each spoonful packed with iron, B vitamins, potassium, calcium, and zinc.” Plus, when paired with milk or yogurt, the protein and nutrient content of cereal further increases. Cereal is affordable, accessible, and convenient, which are often positive traits of processed foods.
Bread is typically fortified with minerals like iron, zinc, and calcium, as well as important vitamins like folate and other B vitamins. “When you see enriched flour on the ingredient list, you know that vitamins and minerals have been added to the flour that may not otherwise be there,” says Kelsey Kunik, RDN, nutrition advisor for Zenmaster Wellness. “While bread can be an excellent way to eat more fiber and replenish your body with energizing carbohydrates, it can also help minimize nutrient deficiencies, especially in low-income environments or at-risk groups, as enriched bread is readily available and budget-friendly,” Kunik adds. Try to find bread with at least two to three grams of fiber per slice.
Soybeans are used to make various processed products, such as soy milk, tofu, tempeh, and more. Soybeans are among the best sources of plant-based protein, and also offer B Vitamins, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and unsaturated fatty acids. Using soy milk in smoothies, adding tofu to a stir fry, or snacking on edamame are some ways to enjoy the nutrition of soy. Tori Vasko, RD, also adds that unlike tofu, tempeh is “processed” through fermentation, which adds several gut health benefits, and helps to produce a distinctive savory flavor.
5. Greek yogurt
Greek yogurt is a popular, high-protein snack that has been nutritionally altered through fermentation (the process of turning milk into yogurt). This processed food is rich in nutrients, such as vitamin D, calcium, vitamin B12 and protein, as well as health-promoting probiotics. Probiotics have been linked to improved immunity, gut health, digestion, mental health and more.
6. Canned fish
Canned fish can be a budget-friendly way to meet the two-times-per-week seafood recommendations that many Americans aren’t meeting. “Foods like canned tuna, salmon, and sardines are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, high-quality protein, and various vitamins and minerals. Choose varieties that are packed in water or olive oil to avoid added salt,” adds dietitian Kathryn Piper.
7. Peanut butter
A versatile spread, peanut butter is quick and easy—and has a lot to offer, nutritionally. “Peanut butter is full of plant-based protein, heart-healthy fat, and even a small amount of fiber; it also contains a wide variety of vitamins and minerals such as vitamin E, niacin, and iron,” shares Alexandra Turnball, RD.
Oats may be a staple in your morning breakfast, but did you know they are a “processed” food? Oats vary in how they are processed, but they provide protein, fiber, and several micronutrients, such as iron, magnesium, and zinc. “Specifically, oats are a great source of beta glucan, a soluble fiber that helps to slow down digestion, improve feelings of fullness, and manage cholesterol. For the least processed type of oats, go for steel cut varieties,” says Justine Chan, MHSc, RD, CDE, founder of Your Diabetes Dietitian. The packaged, flavored varieties will have more sugar and flavorings, but can still be a good option for convenient, on-the-go options.
Pasta doesn’t need to be limited to carb loading and endurance athletes. “Pasta is a unique, refined carbohydrate source thanks to the protein structure that it contains, making it digest more slowly and result in a lower blood glucose response when compared with rice or white bread,” says Lauren Manaker, RD. “This slow digestion factor has resulted in pasta being assigned a lower glycemic index and glycemic load score compared with other major sources of carbohydrates.” Upgrading to a protein pasta made with beans or legumes, such as Barilla Protein Plus or Banza, can also add more protein and fiber.
10. Granola bars
Granola bars are the epitome of convenient snack foods and can be great for active individuals before a workout. While the nutrition content varies widely from bar to bar (and there’s a lot on the market), many granola bars contain whole grains, fiber, and protein, as well as additional micronutrients, like iron and B Vitamins. For sustaining snacks, try to aim for options with a blend of fiber and protein for optimal satiety. Some brands also offer mini portions, which may be ideal before a low-intensity workout, such as CLIF BAR minis (four to five grams of plant-based protein, two grams of fiber). These can also be great options for those who want a lower sugar or calorie option.
Since convenience is a major purchasing factor among consumers, having convenient, nutrient-dense processed foods is actually a good thing. While the processed foods debate isn’t likely to end anytime soon, rest assured that these quick, easy, and accessible food options are providing important nutrients and convenience.
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