Soda, candy bars and TV dinners are just a few of the foods responsible for giving processed fare a bad rap. They're high in fat, sugar and salt, and skimp on vital nutrients. But not everything that's sold in a bag or a bottle is a dietary devil. Don't believe it? Consider this: Any food that has been cleaned, cut, heated, pasteurized, blanched, cooked, canned, frozen, mixed, or packaged is considered "processed." That definition covers a huge continuum of foods and lumps things like boxed kale and Cheetos into the same category! This is why it isn't accurate to label all processed foods 'good' or 'bad'. Yes, Cheetos should be eaten in moderation, but there's no reason to nix your washed, cut and boxed kale. To help you decipher which bagged and packaged foods deserve a place in your shopping cart—even if you've vowed to 'eat clean' or nix processed food—Eat This, Not That! called on a crew of nutrition experts. Here's what they had to say:
"It's unfortunate that the term 'processing' conjures images of sugar and salt because not all processed foods are unhealthy," says Heather Mangieri, RDN, a board certified sports dietetics specialist. "In fact, many of them are great additions to the diet—and green tea is one that falls into this category. Tea leaves contain multiple compounds and phytonutrients that can boost metabolism and health."
"Unsalted, dry-roasted nuts are one of my favorite snack choices," says Elisa Zied, MS, RDN, CDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and author of Younger Next Week. "Yes, they are processed, but ounce for ounce, they're nutritionally comparable to raw nuts and are a good source of protein, healthy fats, fiber and several vitamins and minerals. To vary your diet a bit, I suggest eating both raw and dry-roasted nuts."
Canned Coconut Milk
Even though coconut milk is highly processed, there's no need to feel guilty if you're a fan. "Unlike coconut water, coconut milk needs to be processed to be extracted from the whole coconut," explains Cassie Bjork, RD, LD of Healthy Simple Life. "The coconut flesh is typically soaked in hot water before the healthy fat is skimmed off of the top and then canned for the longest shelf life. Even though it has to go through these steps, coconut milk without added sugar or additives is a healthy source of fat that is wonderful in soups, smoothies and coffee."
According to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, processed fruits and vegetables provide a significant amount of Americans' daily intake of fiber, folate, potassium and vitamins A and C—nutrients that most of us fall short on. This is why nutrition experts often feel they make a great diet addition. "Just like regular carrots, baby carrots are an excellent source of vitamins A, C and K, and a good source of fiber and potassium," notes Zied. "Plus, because they're pre-washed and ready to consume, they make healthy eating all the more convenient, which I'm all for!"
Dehydrated Meats & Fruits
"Dehydrated meats and fruits both go through a process by which water is removed to allow for a longer shelf life without the addition of preservatives or chemicals. Although they are considered 'processed', these snacks provide a convenient, portable source of protein and carbohydrates. For the best source of nutrients, I recommend dehydrated meat from grass-fed animals," says Bjork.
"Olive oil is an amazing health food that many people don't realize is processed. In fact, if you were to attempt to make just one quart of your own extra-virgin olive oil, you would need at least 2,000 olives!" explains Ilyse Schapiro MS, RD, a registered dietitian with private practices in New York and Connecticut. "It's rich in monounsaturated fats, which are known to be protective against cardiovascular disease, stroke, Alzheimer's and liver damage."
Good news, cheese lovers! RDs say cheese is a processed food that deserves a place on your plate. "Almost all varieties of cheese go through processing and pasteurization to kill off bacteria before being packaged. Nonetheless, many varieties are fantastic sources of healthy fat," says Bjork. Greek yogurt and milk are also nutrient-packed, healthy sources of dairy that go through processing before they hit supermarket shelves.
"All varieties of oatmeal—even the super-healthy, steel-cut varieties—undergo processing. Even so, oatmeal is a healthy food, rich in fiber—a nutrient that helps prevents overeating, reduces bad cholesterol levels and decreases risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease," says Schapiro.
"All nut butters are processed so they can spread easily—and it's actually quite beneficial for digestion, says Bjork. Why? "When food particles are smaller, it's easier for the body to absorb and digest the nutrients. Plus, natural nut butters—made solely from nuts and salt—are loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals and healthy fat that boosts metabolism and brain power." Craving a sweet and salty treat? Bjork suggests topping an apple with a couple of tablespoons of nut butter and a few chocolate chips.