Though cakes, cookies, and highly modified foods with a laundry list of ingredients may come to mind first when you think of processed foods, it may be time for you to take a closer look at all those canned, frozen, and packaged goods to see which ones are worth trashing and which ones are worth keeping around in your pantry. There are plenty of easy and quick meals that you may eat everyday that aren’t doing your health any good service, but all in all, there are quite a few foods that have high nutritional value even if they aren’t coming right from your local farm to your dinner table.
There are plenty of “processed” foods, that is, foods that have been processed and packaged in a factory before hitting the stores, that are quite nutrient-dense and time-saving when it comes to making easy weeknight meals — the secret is knowing which of these foods are worth the buy. Here are a few highly nutritious and processed foods that you should feel good about adding in to your diet and using in your meals.
1. Greek yogurt
Though many yogurts on the market contain sugary syrups and fruit toppings to flavor them, Greek yogurt, while still processed and supplied in both individual packages and larger containers, can be part of a balanced and healthy diet. Greek yogurt differs from regular yogurt because the liquid whey is separated from the final product, according to Healthline. This gives the Greek yogurt its signature thick texture, and it reduces the carbs and sugar content that is higher in other yogurts.
There’s quite a bit more protein in Greek yogurt as well, which assists in muscle growth and skin health. And, even though Greek yogurt is processed, there are still probiotics present in the product. Probiotics are excellent for your digestive system, and they help keep a healthy balance of bacteria in your intestines. The high levels of potassium and calcium are also a plus, and this yogurt in particular is known for helping exercise fiends repair their muscles quicker between workouts.
2. Nut butters
Nut butters may be high in fat and calories, but overall, they can actually do amazing things for your health and should find a home in your pantry. Though peanut butter on white bread may be your childhood staple food, other butters like almond butter, walnut butter, and cashew butter are all excellent alternatives to the commonplace peanut butter — and, you can find them all right next to each other in your local grocery store.
Today’s Dietitian explains how nut butters are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are known to decrease cholesterol and actually lower the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. This fat content coupled with the high protein and fiber content found in nuts makes this processed food a satisfying snack that will keep you full for hours on end. Because there are so many different brands of nut butter available on the shelves, you’ll want to look at the sugar content on the nutritional label to determine which brand of nut butter is healthiest — while “all-natural” brands may have the least amount of sugar and preservatives, they can also be the most expensive, so choose what works best for you, your nutritional needs, and your price range. And, go for whole grain bread over white when deciding what to put your peanut butter on.
3. Flax meal
There are not many foods that are actually healthier once they go through a bit of processing, but in the case of flax meal, this happens to be the case. Flaxseed meal is made by grounding up the whole seeds of flax, and in its ground form, it’s more easily digested than eating the seeds whole. According to SFGate, grinding the flax releases many of its nutritious aspects, so go for the meal instead of whole flax when picking this food up from your grocery store.
Ground flaxseed meal is an excellent source of fiber, and while it can act as a mild laxative for those who experience digestive distress, fiber can also help lower your chances of developing cancers that are related to your digestive system as well as heart disease. Additionally, there are oils found in flaxseed meal that contain alpha-linolenic acid, which is an essential fatty acid that comes right before omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are great for reducing inflammation in the body, and they can help ward away any inflammatory diseases you may encounter in the future.
If you’re unsure of how to incorporate a food like flax meal into your diet, start by sprinkling it over top of your yogurt for extra crunch, or baking it into any baked good. As a processed food, it’s certainly worth every penny.
4. Canned beans
Though food from a can may not seem like the healthiest option, canned beans are a quick, easy, and wallet-friendly source of quality nutrition. Black, pinto, kidney, and even chickpeas are all fair game when it comes to adding a heart-healthy boost to your soups and salads. According to Livestrong, canned beans are low in saturated fat and calories while still containing quite a bit of fiber, and a diet rich in fiber is likely to result in a decreased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
While one serving of canned beans can unfortunately do some serious damage in the sodium category, beans typically also offer between 13 and 15 grams of protein per serving. There are low-sodium canned options available in the grocery aisle, but if you can’t seem to find them, rinsing your beans before using them can help reduce the sodium levels. Additionally, if you’re looking to keep the fat and calorie content low, opt out of canned baked beans and just stick with the plain bean varieties to build your own meals and flavor combinations.
5. Canned tuna and salmon
While fresh tuna and salmon come with a slew of health benefits that are hard to beat, these fish in their processed and canned forms also come with their own benefits — and they can be found for a great price in your local grocery store. The World’s Healthiest Foods explains that canned salmon can potentially contain even more health benefits than fresh salmon, and this is because the bones are packed into the canned salmon and they soften during the canning process so that you can consume them. In addition to the known omega-3s that are found in both fresh and canned salmon, these soft bones add additional health benefits like added calcium.
Canned tuna, whether packed in oil or water, also contains quite a bit of protein and omega-3s as well — one 4-ounce serving of tuna contains about 19% of your recommended daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Tuna packed in oil contains slightly lower levels of omega-3s than tuna packed in water, however, so consider this when choosing your canned variety.
It’s important to note that the multiple stages of heat involved in the canning process can take a toll on the nutritional value of the final product, so this is where canned fish may lose some of their nutrients. However, canned tuna and salmon still contain quite a nutritional punch for a heavily processed food.
6. Frozen vegetables or fruit
Even when winter hits and some of your favorite vegetables and fruits are out of season, have no fear — frozen vegetables and fruits are the perfect processed substitute to get you through those off months. While fresh fruits and veggies may seem like the healthier choice, they can be quite expensive during certain times of the year, and if they aren’t already prepped and ready to go, they may be left a little too long sitting in the bottom shelf of your fridge. Frozen vegetables are pre-cut and ready to be heated, and because they’re typically picked and frozen right at their peak of ripeness, they can sometimes offer even more health benefits than their fresh counterparts, says Eating Well.
There are times when frozen veggies may not be as nutrient-dense as fresh veggies, however; before vegetables are frozen and bagged, they are blanched to kill bacteria, and this heating process can cause some vitamins such as vitamin C and B vitamins to escape. Other times, veggies and fruit are picked just before they are ripe and then they frozen, giving them the appearance of being ripe when you pull them out of the bag but not actually having the nutritious impact that fresh fruits and veggies can have. Either way, if having veggies prepped and frozen in your freezer means you’re eating more of them year-round, then the processed way to go is sometimes the best way to go.
The simple and delicious hummus is easy enough to make at home, but if you’re going for the pre-packaged, processed varieties, chances are you’re still going to find a nutrient-dense snack no matter what brand you purchase. The Huffington Post explains how hummus is rich in protein, which is part of the reason it makes such a good post-workout and midday snack. There’s also a good amount of iron in hummus, which can help boost energy levels for even the most intense exercise routines.
Chickpeas, hummus’s main ingredient, are rich in fiber, so they’re great for your digestive system, and olive oil, another main ingredient in this food, is high in healthy fats that can help ward off heart disease. And, there’s no shortage of flavorings when it comes to hummus — from spicy to sweet, the flavor combinations are seemingly endless, and they all contain heart-healthy and digestive friendly ingredients to make your meals delicious and healthful.