How to Find Healthy Processed Foods

Three Parts:Identifying Healthier Processed FoodsIncorporating Healthier Processed Foods into Your DietAvoiding Unhealthy Processed Foods

When you hear "processed foods" you probably think of something not so healthy. Maybe you think of sweets, fast food, fried foods or frozen or canned foods. Many processed foods are indeed not the most nutritious choice. In fact, many are overly processed and contain higher amounts of calories, fat, sugar, salt and chemical additives.[1] But not all processed foods are unhealthy. If you really think about it, there are actually plenty of processed foods that are healthy and nutritious.

Part 1
Identifying Healthier Processed Foods

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    Read the food labels. Whether you're trying to stay away from processed foods or choose more nutritious processed foods, the first place you'll want to look is the nutrition label. This is where you're going to get the "real story" of the foods you're eating.
    • The first thing you need to look at is the serving size. This will determine exactly how many calories or how much sugar is in an individual food.[2] Without this, you cannot make sense of the rest of the information.
    • After the serving size, check out the total amount of fat in the product. Unhealthier processed foods may be especially high in saturated fats or trans fats - avoid these.[3] However, moderate amounts of fat in processed food is OK.
    • Another part to look at is the total amount of sodium. Many processed foods are especially high in sodium. However, anything under 200 mg of sodium per serving is considered "low sodium" and is OK to eat.[4]
    • Look at the total amount of sugar. There's not necessarily a limit here, however note that you will not be able to tell whether or not there is added sugars or natural sugar.[5] You'll need to look at the ingredient list.
    • Also check on the ingredient list. This will tell you whether or not there are any added sugars, preservatives or other additives. Foods with many added sugars and additives are something you want to avoid.
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    Select minimally processed fruits and vegetables. You can find minimally processed and heavily processed fruits and vegetables. Choose items that are minimally processed without additives for the healthiest choice.
    • Pre-washed or pre-cut fresh fruits and vegetables found in the produce section are still processed (they're washed and cut which counts as processing). However, little if any other ingredients are added to these items.[6] Try bagged lettuce, bagged and cut vegetables or pre-sliced fruits.
    • Slightly more processed version of fruits and vegetables are frozen items. Many times these are only blanched or cooked and then flash frozen. Look for items that come with out added sauces, gravies, sugar, seasonings or salt for the most nutritious choice.[7]
    • Both canned fruits and vegetables are probably the most processed versions of these otherwise nutritious foods. Choose canned items without added salt or look for items labeled as "no salt added" in addition to fruits canned in water or their own juice.[8]
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    Choose 100% whole grains with few additives. 100% whole grains are a great food group to add to your diet. They're typically higher in fiber and other essential nutrients and considerably less processed than refined grains.[9] Be choosy with the whole grains you do purchase to avoid highly processed items.
    • Look for uncooked or raw grains without added seasonings. For example, many grains, even whole grains, come with added flavorings and seasonings if they are a mix - like cajun brown rice or herbed couscous. If your grains come with a seasoning packet that's separate, toss it and add your own seasonings at home instead.
    • Some whole grains come par or pre-cooked (like microwave in a bowl brown rice). Although these nutritious grains have gone through a higher amount of processing - mostly just cooking - they're still a nutritious version of a processed food.
    • If you're purchasing breads, one of the great choices is to buy it from the bakery section of your grocery store. Loaves are generally baked fresh and are minimally processed.
    • You may also want to try sprouted breads, tortillas or English muffins which are typically found in the refrigerated or freezer sections. They have minimal additives and actually need to be kept frozen so they do not spoil.[10]
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    Go for minimally processed meats. Meats and seafood can range widely in the amount of processing they undergo. Generally, the more processed they are, the less nutritious they are as well. Be smart when you're purchasing your proteins.
    • The best type of meat or seafood to buy are those that are raw or frozen without any seasonings or flavors. Also read the packaging label as many raw or frozen items may have some additives to help improve color, freshness or moisture. These are safe, but may be something you want to avoid.[11]
    • There are also canned versions of chicken, tuna, salmon and other protein sources. These are generally cooked but are canned with very minimal additives. These are a convenient and nutritious processed version of proteins.
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    Choose dairy products without added sugar. The dairy food group contains many nutritious foods that contain high amounts of protein, calcium and vitamin D.[12] However, be careful and make sure to choose the least processed items here.
    • In general, items like plain milk, cottage cheese and cheese are minimally processed and contain very little additives.
    • If you're choosing yogurts, choose plain for the least processed. The plain flavors of both greek and regular yogurt do not contain added sugars or flavorings. Purchase the plain and add your own fruit or sweetener at home.
    • Non-dairy alternatives are a great for those who do not want to have or cannot have dairy products. However, these come with the tradeoff of being slightly more processed in order to mimic the flavor and texture of regular dairy foods.[13]
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    Choose all natural condiments and sauces. It's hard to purchase condiments, salad dressings, marinades or sauces without multiple ingredients. Sometimes these foods have many ingredients and are still a nutritious choice.
    • Choose low-sugar or "all natural" ketchup. These have lower amounts of sugar, salt and have minimal additives.
    • Instead of low fat or fat free mayonnaise, choose the mayonnaise with olive oil for a less processed version of this creamy condiment.
    • You may also want to consider purchasing salad dressings made from yogurt for a lower calorie, but less processed version of creamy dressings.
    • Look for salsa or tomato sauce with little added sugars and sodium for the best bet.

Part 2
Incorporating Healthier Processed Foods into Your Diet

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    Make quick meals with pre-washed and cut produce. If you're busy and on the run, purchasing some pre-washed and cut fruits and vegetables can make getting your 5-9 servings of these nutrient dense foods a lot easier.[14][15]
    • Buy pre-washed lettuces and salad mixes. These allow you to get a quick side dish or main course on the table quickly. Plus, you can also make quick lunches by tossing a few handfuls of bagged lettuce with your favorite protein in a tupperware for a nutritious, packed lunch.
    • Consider purchasing pre-cut and trimmed vegetables like bagged broccoli florets, cauliflower florets or baby zucchinis. Sometimes you can even microwave to steam these in the bag for a very quick and easy clean up side dish.
    • Pre cut apple slices or cut up fresh fruit can make a quick side to a packed lunch or a great and easy topper for your morning yogurt or oatmeal.
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    Pack in protein with minimally processed items. Overly processed proteins like bacon, sausage or deli meat are not a great choice as they are too processed. However, make healthy meals with proteins like:
    • Purchase pre-grilled chicken breasts or chicken breast strips from the refrigerated section. These are minimally processed and great to top a salad with or toss with whole wheat pasta.
    • Stock up on canned tuna or salmon to make your own homemade tuna salad or to flake over a spinach salad for lunch.
    • Purchase individually frozen chicken breasts or fish filets. Take one or as many as you'd like out the night before for an easy, portion controlled protein source at dinner.
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    Include quick grains. Grains can be a pain to cook. Some take 20-30 minutes to cook which you might not have time for in your busy schedule. Choose nutritious processed grains like these to make meals quick:
    • Purchase microwaveable grains or pre-cooked grains like brown rice, quinoa or couscous from the store. They are pre-cooked and more processed, but minimally so. They just require a quick reheat and you'll have a high fiber side in a flash.
    • Also consider purchasing frozen, pre-cooked grains. Many grocery stores offer pre-cooked brown rice, quinoa or wild rice mixes in their frozen sections. Again, they are more processed, but not in a negative way. A quick microwave and you have your whole grain side dish done quickly.
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    Include nutritious sources of dairy foods. Although all dairy foods are a little processed, they offer a lot of health benefits. They're a great source of protein, calcium, Vitamin D and potassium.[16] Choose nutritious sources of processed dairy like these:
    • Cottage cheese. This is a very high protein food that can serve as a quick breakfast or lunch. Top with some fruit for a balanced meal.
    • Yogurt. Try going for plain varieties since they don't have the added sugar of the "fruited flavors." Top with sliced whole fruits, nuts and seeds for a balanced meal.
    • Cheese. This is another processed dairy food, but adds great flavor and some protein to meals. Serve yourself an ounce per meal to stick to appropriate portion sizes.[17]

Part 3
Avoiding Unhealthy Processed Foods

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    Limit sweetened beverages. A common source of extra calories and sugar are sweetened beverages. In the "drink world", sweetened beverages are some of the most processed.[18]
    • Limit drinks like sodas - even diet or "zero" sodas. They're either high in sugar or artificial sweeteners and many coloring agents and other preservatives.
    • Also try to minimize your intake of fruit juice. Only drink 100% juice, but this is still a source of liquid calories and should be minimized.
    • Don't forget about sweetened coffee drinks and teas from your local coffee shop. These are very processed and another big source of sugar.
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    Minimize highly processed sweet treats. When you get a sweet craving, many people will go for an overly processed sweet treat. Like sweetened beverages, these contain high amounts of sugar and calories.[19]
    • Avoid items like ice creams, cookies, cakes, pies, pastries, and doughnuts. These are all very processed and contain high amounts of sugars and calories.
    • Also don't get fooled by frozen yogurt shops. Many offer sugar-free and fat-free options. But remember, when they remove the sugar and fat they're adding more artificial sweeteners and other additives to replace the palate pleasing sugar and fat.
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    Eat minimal amounts of fried and fast foods. Outside of sweets, one of the biggest groups of processed foods that are eaten are fried and fast foods. Not only are these foods one of the most processed, they are also some of the most unhealthy foods.
    • Both fried foods and fast foods contain many, many additives and are especially high in calories and fats (like trans fat).[20]
    • Skip foods that are deep fried and go for something that's grilled, steamed or baked instead.
    • If you're stopping at a fast food restaurant, be careful as many of the foods offered will be processed. Stick to simple items like salads, grilled chicken sandwiches or soups.
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    Avoid processed meats. Like fried and fast foods, processed meats are generally ranked as some of the most unhealthy versions of processed foods. Make sure to avoid this type of processed protein.
    • Processed meats have been linked to a variety of adverse health effects like heart disease and cancer.[21]
    • Skip over items like bacon, sausage, deli meat, hot dogs, salami, and canned meat spreads. These are some of the most processed foods that you can purchase.
    • Also consider skipping over more "natural" or "healthy" processed meats. Sometimes turkey sausage or turkey bacon may seem like a better choice, however they are sometimes higher in sodium and calories than regular bacon or sausage.[22]
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    Skip the frozen and canned meals. Another category of foods that are notoriously overly processed and high in sodium are both frozen and canned meals.[23] Avoid these items as well.
    • Although some frozen meals are obviously not the healthiest choice, there are some frozen meals that are marketed as "healthy" or "low calorie." These are generally incredibly high in sodium, although low in calorie.[24]
    • Canned meals like ravioli, spaghetti and even soups are also highly processed and full of additives, calories and sodium. Avoid these at all costs as well.


  • Remember, not all processed foods are unhealthy or bad for you. Processed foods range widely and can even include items like pre washed bagged lettuce.
  • Focus on minimizing highly processed foods like fried foods, canned foods or frozen meals.
  • Including nutritious, minimally processed foods can be a healthy addition to your diet. Plus, many of these foods make preparing healthier meals a lot easier.

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Categories: Nutrition and Lifestyle Eating | Food Selection and Storage