Ultra-processed foods should be avoided for a variety of reasons that include an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, weight gain, all-cause mortality, and dementia. But it’s not all bad news. Since there is a spectrum of how processed foods are, many options may be processed yet provide substantial nutritional benefit.
Processing ranges widely:
- Minimally processed foods — such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables and roasted nuts — often are simply pre-prepped for convenience.
- Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna.
- Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture (sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives) include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes.
- Ready-to-eat foods — such as crackers, granola and deli meat — are more heavily processed.
- The most heavily processed foods (often referred to as ultra-processed) often are pre-made meals including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners, chips, candy, packaged soups, etc. that go through multiple processes.
Here are 8 food options that are minimally processed or processed at their peak and can benefit your health.
Beans and lentils are an excellent source of protein, fiber and essential minerals. They also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Black beans, lentils, chickpeas, pinto beans and soybeans are all great sources of anthocyanins – that magical flavonoid that reduces inflammation. All beans can be part of a healthy diet, but because the contain phytonutrients that function as anti-inflammatory compounds helping to lower CRP, an inflammatory protein, they are especially important in combating the inflammation involved with chronic pain. They are also loaded with nutritious fibers, which help keep you feeling satiated for longer. You can read more about beans and how they can also help reduce inflammation and pain, here.
Make sure to rinse canned beans before you use them to reduce your sodium intake and remove preservatives. Also check that the brand you purchase used a BPA free liner for the can, go limit your exposure to harmful PFAs.
Cottage cheese is onsidered a fresh cheese and doesn’t undergo an aging or ripening process. Cottage cheese is made from the curds of various levels of pasteurized cow’s milk, including nonfat, reduced fat, or regular milk. It’s high in protein, which accounts for over 70% of the calories in cottage cheese. Keep it on-hand since it is easy to incorporate into any meal of the day. Add fruit for breakfast, dip veggies into it with lunch, and as a salad topper for dinner.
Milk is processed through the pasteurization process. “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 phosphorus — all important as we age. For vegetarians or the lactose-intolerant, go with soy milk. Sources share it is the only plant-based milk that has complete protein. Soy milk 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. Choose low fat or skim milk to reduce the calories but still benefit from the protein boost. Read about the variety of milks that are available, and their health benefits in this post!
Many consider Greek Yogurt a super food since it is loaded with protein, probiotics, and other micronutrients like calcium. As a result of its straining and fermentation processes, Greek yogurt has less lactose than regular yogurt, milk and even ice cream. And its live and active cultures help break down the lactose it does contain, making it easier for people to digest, even those with lactose intolerance. Choose plain Greek yogurt to reduce your sugar intake and top it with fruits, and nuts.
Precut Veggies or Prepped Salads
Even bagged baby carrots are considered processed, although minimally. They are a great snack option to take while on the go. Just one example of how so-called convenience foods can be processed and yet still benefit our health. choose options that do not have dressings, salt, or flavors added. Even if it is a bag of lettuce, read the label to check what has been added. The less, the better.
You’ve likely heard of recalls tied to bagged lettuce. While concerning, it is rare and shouldn’t cause you to pass on consuming these foods. To be extra safe, wash the lettuce, even if it is labeled as “triple washed” or “ready to eat”. While the process that is used to wash the produce is considered safe, some people find their flavor unappealing. This is sometimes a result of the proprietary washing processes and solutions that companies use. One way to combat this and yet have the convenience of pre-packaged salads is to prepare your own ahead of time. For salads, buy a whole head of lettuce, wash it, chop it, then store it in a reusable bag (as shown below) with a paper towel in it to catch the moisture.
In terms of health, the benefits of eating a salad outweigh the risks. Be cautious about any included dressings on pre-made salads and opt to make your own or skip it altogether. Try these dressing and dip recipes that are easy to pack in small squeeze bottles and have while away from home.
When chosen carefully, nut butters that are low in sodium and sugar can provide loads of protein and are an easy way to get a boost of energy throughout the day. Since they are long lasting (typically 2-3 months after opening), it’s easy to always have them available for when hunger pangs strike. Watch the serving size though- it can be too easy to scoop up the creamy tastiness! Some examples include the classic peanut butter, almond butter, walnut butter, and cashew butter.
Canned or Frozen Fish
There are times when you don’t have access to sustainably sourced fresh seafood. That’s when canned tuna, sardines, or canned salmon can help you stay on track with your menu plan with healthy sources of these lean proteins. Fish is also a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which support brain health. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to prevent blood platelets from clumping together, which causes blood clots. This in turn supports brain function by helping lower the potential for ischemic strokes, which are caused by blood clots blocking arteries leading to the brain.
Check labels for those that have the lowest amount of sodium.
Frozen Veggies and Fruits
Frozen fruits and vegetables are an excellent way to incorporate Whole foods into your diet. Picked at the peak of ripeness then flash frozen, frozen fruits and vegetables have all the same nutritional value as fresh items, but often at a lower price and with more consistent availability. Make sure you avoid fruits and vegetables preserves in sauces (typically canned items). They will have high levels of sodium and sugar.
Without a doubt, avoid ultra-processed foods as much as possible. But this short list of healthy, processed foods shows that it’s not all black and white when it comes to what’s healthy and what’s not. These items are great choices when working to improve your diet and incorporate healthier choices.
Courtney Medical Group is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC
Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to
provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and
linking to amazon.com. Please read our full disclaimer here.