Did you know there are healthy processed foods?
When we hear or read the words “processed food”, we all think of unhealthy food. In the last decade or so, we’ve all been told to avoid foods that undergo a serious transformation from their initial form (if they even had an initial form—as far as we know, there’s no such thing as an energy drink river or a protein bar farm).
Still, it’s possible that we’ve been a bit too drastic when it comes to including all processed foods in a category we should all avoid. Many experts have lately begun encouraging people not to deem all these foods unhealthy.
In fact, there’s a difference between processed and ultra-processed foods, and as you might think, the latter category is the one we should avoid. But when it comes to the former, nutritionists point out that there are, in fact, healthy processed foods we shouldn’t demonize in one fell swoop.
This being said, we’ve rounded up some options that, though technically processed, are actually good for you. Here are 10 healthy processed foods!
Yes, yogurt falls into the category of healthy processed foods. Most people wouldn’t see it like this, but it is. The process of turning cow’s milk (or any other animal that produces milk) into a thick, creamy dairy treat takes temperature, time, and added bacterial cultures.
The good news is that these multiple steps don’t affect the yogurt’s health in any way. Nutritionists point out that yogurt is a great source of calcium, protein, vitamin B1, and probiotics that boost your digestive and immune health.
To make sure you choose the healthiest, least processed yogurt, experts recommend opting for plain versions or those with less than 12 grams of sugar per serving.
2. Whole wheat bread
All types of bread are technically processed—there’s no bread tree that makes whole loaves. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid all bread. While white bread is highly processed, the varieties that are made with whole wheat as the first ingredient actually fall into the category of healthy processed foods. Choose the latter, and you’ll reap the benefits of micronutrients, fiber, and a bit of protein.
According to experts, whole wheat bread is packed full of omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and even a few grams of protein per slice. For those with diabetes or who want to lose weight, bread may be off the table, but whole grain options are actually nutritious and can be considered a healthy diet staple.
By the way, here’s a recipe book with plenty of inspiration if you want to make your own bread at home.
3. Dried fruit
They come in a package, and you can find them in the store next to candy bars—does that mean dried fruits are too processed to be considered healthy? Experts say no.
Though they may not have the water content of fresh berries or apples, dried fruits have just as many nutrients, and they are actually healthy processed foods. In fact, they sometimes contain more antioxidants and fiber than fresh fruits, as there are more of them per serving.
According to nutritionists, raisins are a great energy-boosting snack to keep in your bag. They are full of iron, fiber, and carbohydrates to fuel both your muscles and your brain.
Buttery microwave popcorn is often a source of hidden artificial flavors and trans fats, putting it squarely in ultra-processed territory. But lightly salted or plain popcorn is far less processed. Better yet, pop it on the stovetop instead of choosing microwave popcorn, and you’ll have a snack that can easily fall into the healthy processed foods category.
According to experts, popcorn is a nutritious, delicious, and quick snack to keep on hand. It’s packed with magnesium and fiber and has only 100 calories per 3 cups. If you pop plain kernels and pop them yourself, you can add any flavor you’re in the mood for, like parmesan cheese, chili lime, or cinnamon sugar if you’re feeling sweet.
Keep reading to discover other healthy processed foods!
5. Canned fish
Add canned fish to the list of healthy processed foods, too. It’s a great source of proteins and healthy fats, and while it may be more processed than a fresh-caught trout or a fillet of salmon, canned fish can still offer excellent nutrition. Not to mention, it usually costs less than the fresh option.
Canned fish, including salmon, tuna, anchovies, mackerel, and sardines, just to name a few, are shelf-stable powerhouses full of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Consuming fish, especially those packed with omega-3s, is a hallmark recommendation of the Mediterranean diet, which is consistently named one of the healthiest dietary eating patterns.
Hummus may be processed, but it’s still a nutritious food. As you may know, it’s made primarily of chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans) and olive oil, making it a healthy snack with protein and fiber. It’s also versatile and excellent for dipping and adding flavor to other meals.
Hummus is also a good source of minerals and vitamins like copper, iron, folate, and manganese. Thanks to its impressive nutrient profile, it may help promote heart health, ease inflammation, and support blood sugar management.
Pair it with veggies like carrot sticks or pepper strips, and you’ve got a great compromise between minimally processed and whole-food snacking.
7. Canned or frozen lentils
Plant-based proteins are very popular nowadays, and it’s easy to see why. Not only do plant foods like lentils offer plenty of protein, but they also stock you up on fiber, magnesium, manganese, folate, and other important nutrients.
Luckily, you don’t have to do the work of soaking and boiling the lentils to enjoy their excellent nutrition. Canned and even frozen ones do just as well for your health as dried lentils. So yes, they are healthy processed foods.
You can add them to salads, stews, or soups. At 10 grams of protein, 21 grams of complex carbohydrates, and 6 grams of fiber per half a cup of serving, lentils make the perfect addition to many dishes to promote ample energy, stable blood sugar levels, and regular digestion.
8. Soy milk
When we talk about plant-based, non-dairy milk, there’s a spectrum of processing that we cannot overlook. Some variants have ingredient lists as long as your arm, complete with fillers, preservatives, and emulsifiers. Others are far simpler, and that’s the sign you should look for. Basically, the fewer ingredients, the better.
For vegans or people with lactose intolerance, there are many healthy processed foods to choose from, soy milk included. In fact, of all plant-based milks, experts suggest choosing the one made of soy. It’s the only vegan milk that has complete protein and all of the essential amino acids of cow’s milk.
Soy milk is also fortified with vitamin D and calcium. The one from Pacific Foods, for example, contains just organic soybeans and water.
Whereas ultra-processed foods are those that have been significantly altered with the addition of artificial colors and flavors, preservatives, hydrogenated fats, extra sweeteners, and other questionable ingredients, processed food is simply one that has undergone some form of change between farm and table.
While the formers have been associated with health outcomes like heart disease and obesity, the latter category embeds healthy processed foods that can provide lots of benefits.
If you liked our article on healthy processed foods, you may also want to read 6 Delicious Breakfast Foods That Prevent Dementia.