Smart Eats: These Processed Foods Are Actually Good for You

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:33:14 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Robert Stinnett/Flickr

If you’re not familiar with the term, any food that is altered before you eat it is considered a processed food. Despite what most people think, not all processed foods are guilty of providing nothing more than empty calories and strange ingredients you can't read. Whole foods may provide the best option, but that doesn't mean you can’t opt for something processed when time is short.

In general, the less processed a food is, the better. Let’s take a look at some processed foods that are actually good for you, so you can choose the right ones.

Whole Grain Pasta

If you don’t consume enough fiber each day, it can cause some unappealing health problems. Whole grain pastas provide an excellent solution to this problem. Whole grains contain a lot of fiber, so unlike white pasta with minimal nutrients, whole grain pasta provides a lot of nutrition.

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On top of the fiber, whole grain pasta also contains magnesium, zinc and B vitamins. That’s great news for pasta lovers who can't escape their carb addictions. Whole grain pasta still has carbs, but they aren’t the empty carbs found in white pasta, so you can feel better about eating it.

Sprouted Wheat Bread

People don't usually think of bread as healthy, and white bread certainly isn’t a healthy option. In truth, even bread labeled "whole wheat" isn't always the best choice. Sprouted wheat bread, however, has a lot of nutrients, including protein and higher enzyme activity.

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Photo Courtesy: Vegan Baking/Wikimedia Commons

Because of that heightened enzyme activity, the nutrients in sprouted wheat bread become more digestible and available for the body to use. This bread also has fewer antinutrients than traditional wheat bread and other types of breads. Antinutrients block the body from absorbing the good nutrients.

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Peanut Butter

In the world of processed foods, peanut butter is one of the best — as long as you stick to certain brands. It’s full of fiber and unsaturated fat, both things your body needs to thrive. It still has to be eaten in moderation due to 63 calories per tablespoon, of course.

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Photo Courtesy: Piccolo Namek/Wikimedia Commons

The reason peanut butter has a worse reputation than it should is because of the amount of sugar added by some brands. If you read the label and it doesn’t contain sugar, high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils, then it’s a good peanut butter to eat. The rest are just as unhealthy as critics claim.

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Jarred or Canned Tomato Sauce

Canned and jarred tomato sauces are packed with (surprise!) tomatoes. One of the best things about tomatoes is they contain lycopene, an antioxidant that can lower the risk of certain cancers as well as heart disease and strokes.

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What's cool about processed tomato sauce is it has more lycopene than fresh tomatoes. Surprising? Yes, but it’s still true. The lycopene becomes concentrated when tomatoes are heated and processed, and that makes it easier for the body to absorb them. Just be sure to choose a product that is low in sodium.

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Canned Beans

Beans of all kinds are not just healthy — they're considered superfoods. This is as true for canned as well as dried varieties. Beans contain tons of protein, soluble fiber, iron and complex carbohydrates — the kind that provide you with lasting energy.

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They provide more nutrients per gram than any other type of food in existence. No wonder they help with digestion, lower cholesterol and regulate blood sugar — all functions that help you live longer. Whether you prefer black beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans or lentils, you can’t go wrong for your health.

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Milk

Most people don't think of milk as a processed food, but commercial milk certainly didn’t come straight from the cow. If it hasn't been processed, it’s not safe to drink. Health professionals go back and forth, debating whether milk is healthy or not, but when it comes right down to it, all that calcium and protein can't be ignored.

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Photo Courtesy: Santeri Viinamäki/Wikimedia Commons

Some milk is also fortified with vitamin D. To put that in perspective, a shortage of vitamin D in the diet has been linked to numerous health issues, including obesity and dementia. Simply drink milk in moderation, as it can have a lot of fat.

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Popcorn

Most people don't realize that popcorn is a whole grain. It’s rich in both fiber and antioxidants and is low in calories as an additional perk. Who would have thought such a delicious, processed snack could be so healthy?

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Of course, popcorn becomes instantly unhealthy when tons of fatty foods are added to it. Cooking it in oil and adding tons of butter and salt eliminate all the good. No one is suggesting cutting out the butter and salt entirely, but using these toppings sparingly is the right choice if you want to put popcorn in the healthy snack category.

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Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate has a lot of fiber, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, phosphorus, zinc, potassium and selenium, many of which are antioxidants that help keep the body's cholesterol and blood pressure levels in check. It also has less milk and sugar than regular chocolate, making it less fattening.

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Although it’s processed, dark chocolate is the opposite of bad for you. You can stop feeling guilty about eating it — in moderation. As long as the dark chocolate you choose has more than 70% cacao, you will reap all the amazing benefits when you eat it.

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Yogurt

Despite coming in a plastic container, yogurt has a lot of nutritional value, including plenty of protein, calcium, Vitamin B12 and probiotics. With almost twice the protein and much less sugar, Greek yogurt is even better than regular yogurt.

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The only thing to watch out for when buying yogurt is the sugar, which many brands use excessively. Yogurt with more than 12 grams of sugar per serving should be avoided. Other than that, you can feel good about eating this ultra-healthy packaged food. If you want it to be sweeter, add some fresh fruit instead.

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Fortified Cereals

Fortified cereals have nutrients specifically added to them, and that requires processing. Breakfast cereals that come in a box often have a lot of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to get your day started in a healthy way.

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Not all fortified cereals are created equal, however. Many add way too much sugar as a flavor enhancer. Before you buy, check the box to avoid cereals with tons of sugar and choose the varieties based on whole grains. Because they are fortified with nutrients, they end up being healthier than the grains alone — as long as you choose the right options.

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Pickles

Most pickles are just fermented cucumbers, and fermentation enriches foods with probiotics, which have become famous for their ability to keep the gut healthy. Also, their calorie count is low, and they contain no fat, so they end up being a super healthy snack or sandwich add-on.

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Some pickles aren’t fermented, but they are still healthy, even without probiotics, partly because of the benefits associated with the vinegar and spices used to jar them. Plus, they've got vitamin A and vitamin K to keep your eyes and bones healthy and strong. Just be sure to avoid pickles with excessive sodium or added sugar.

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Granola Bars

Some granola bars wrapped in plastic and sold in boxes in the grocery store can be quite good for you. The bars that contain less than 5 grams of sugar are best. You can find them infused with other healthy ingredients, like fruits, nuts and dark chocolate.

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All these ingredients provide protein, vitamins, fiber and healthy fats, adding up to a very healthy snack that will fill you up while giving your body energy at the same time. Be careful, though. Many granola bars have excessive sugar and little nutritional value and should be avoided.

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Canned Fish

Canned food can seem like it's not healthy, but it isn't true for beans, and it isn’t true for fish. Canned salmon, tuna and sardines are chock-full of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for preserving heart health and can even help you live longer.

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Most people don't eat these nutrient-rich fish as often as they should because of the price of fresh fish. An amazing thing about canned fish is you can get all the benefits from the fish for a fraction of the price.

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Frozen Produce

Frozen fruits and vegetables have the same nutritional value as their fresh counterparts, so don't be fooled into thinking they aren’t good for you. The only exception is if you store frozen produce for more than a year.

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One amazing benefit of frozen produce is that it tends to be picked and frozen at optimal ripeness, which is also when it contains the highest amount of nutrients. Buying frozen instead of fresh produce has other benefits as well. You can get foods when they're out of season, you eliminate waste and it's usually quite a bit cheaper.

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Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage, and it has tons of healthy attributes. The fermenting process makes it a great source of probiotics, which are excellent for maintaining gut health. Plus, it's full of fiber and contains vitamin A and vitamin C.

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A bonus of sauerkraut is it can help you lose weight, thanks to its high fiber and low calorie count. The only problem is most people use sauerkraut as a condiment for truly unhealthy processed foods, like hot dogs and other sausages. Try eating it straight or with other foods to enjoy the health benefits.

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Chocolate Milk

Like regular milk, chocolate milk is rich in vitamins, minerals and calcium. Why should all the benefits be reserved for kids? Adults would be wise to add chocolate milk to their list of healthy snacks, particularly if they just finished sweating at the gym and are feeling hungry.

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Dieticians say chocolate milk is the perfect snack after a hard workout because it contains the ideal ratio of carbs and protein, three to one. This is apparently the magic ratio to begin the muscle recovery process and prevent soreness. It doesn't hurt that it's delicious, of course.

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String Cheese

String cheese can be quite healthy, particularly if it's low-fat. It’s an excellent source of protein, and it only takes a small serving to leave you feeling full. It also contains a lot of calcium, and low-fat varieties contain much less saturated fat.

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But the benefits don’t stop there. String cheese also has a good amount of vitamin A. One piece of string cheese typically has 100 calories or less — often only about 60 if you go the low-fat route. Choose a low-sodium string cheese on top of all that, and you're pretty much looking at an ideal snack.

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Prepared Pesto

Pesto may have a lot of calories and fat per serving, but the fat comes from the olive oil and pine nuts, so it's unsaturated (read: healthy) fat. It also contains other beneficial ingredients, like basil and garlic. Basil is loaded with vitamin K, and garlic is excellent for the immune system.

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The pesto you buy at the store in a jar usually contains these ingredients, plus some cheese, which adds a little bit of calcium into the mix. Processed food or not, pesto is both healthy and makes a tasty topping for your whole grain pasta.

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Whole Grain Crackers

Crackers aren't great, in general, but some varieties have a lot of nutritional value, especially for a processed food. Crackers containing a lot of protein and fiber but not much sugar and sodium are the crackers you want. To be healthy, they should ideally have a minimum of 3 grams of fiber per serving.

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For the most part, wheat or whole-grain crackers are the healthiest types. They may be a bit more expensive than the other crackers, but it's worth it to get some real nutrition out of your cracker snack.

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Olive Oil

Some people believe that olive oil's high fat content means it's bad for you, but it's not true. The fat in olive oil is very good for you. People who consume a lot of it have a lower risk of cancer, their immune systems function better and they are less likely to be obese.

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If it seems like olive oil is a whole food, think again. It has been heavily processed using heat to achieve the form we know and love. Just like any high fat item, olive oil should be consumed in moderation to get the most health benefits.

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Carbonated Mineral Water

If you're thirsty but don't feel like drinking plain water, the healthiest alternative is drinking carbonated mineral water. Mineral water contains minerals like magnesium, sodium and calcium. Sometimes they occur naturally, but the water is usually fortified to add them. The end result provides refreshment and minerals without giving your body a bunch of empty calories.

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Even choosing a slightly sweetened and flavored carbonated mineral water is better than drinking a soda, which is void of nutrition and contains a lot of bad ingredients. Mineral water can quench your thirst while satisfying your desire for something more exciting than plain water.

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Frozen Veggie Burgers

Frozen veggie burgers are more versatile than products from the past. Now, they are made with more than just the traditional soy base. Different grains and vegetables are added to provide a healthy, delicious meal. As a bonus, they have far less fat than a meat patty.

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Veggie burgers can also be very high in fiber and calcium and contain fewer preservatives than frozen meat burgers. Some contain no preservatives at all. Of course, it all depends on the type of veggie burger, so check the label and choose wisely.

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Canned Produce

Critics have always said that canned vegetables contain significantly reduced nutrient levels, but is that true? Evidence suggests that canning vegetables preserves the majority of their healthy attributes. Vitamins C and B deplete somewhat due to heating during processing, but the rest of the nutrients generally remain intact.

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In some cases, canning vegetables actually increases their nutritional value. For instance, canned tomatoes and corn have more antioxidants than their fresh varieties. So, if you're looking for something quick or are trying to save cash, don't rule out canned vegetables as a healthy option.

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Canned Soup

Not all canned soups are healthy, but some of them are good for you. The main drawback of canned soups is that they have way too much sodium. A "healthy" can of soup should have less than 600 mg of sodium in a serving.

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Many canned soups contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and even some protein. Typically, they are made with vegetables and legumes, like lentils or beans. Next time, instead of picking straight chicken noodle soup, make sure the one you're buying has some vegetables in it.

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Instant Coffee

Does instant coffee taste as good as real coffee? Of course, it doesn't. However, that doesn't mean it doesn't have the same health benefits. Studies have shown that people who drink coffee daily have less chance of developing Alzheimer's. It also cuts their potential for liver damage in half, makes bowel movements more regular and possibly even helps them live longer.

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Instant coffee is essentially the same as bean coffee. The main difference is instant coffee has been processed. They snap freeze and granulate it to make it easy to dissolve, creating "instant coffee."

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Microwavable Brown Rice

The only reason people buy instant rice is because of its convenience. They probably don't realize it's as nutritious as regular rice, despite the processing to make it compatible with microwave cooking. The rice is essentially pre-cooked and then sealed into an air-tight package.

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White rice isn’t particularly good for you, but brown rice has health benefits. Choosing microwavable brown rice is just as good for you as the original form. It can lower cholesterol, help maintain a healthy digestive tract and provide ample vitamins and minerals.

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Organic Jelly

Most jelly has sugar in it, but if you choose organic jelly, it’s mostly made with real fruit and contains the nutrients of the specified fruit. That means your jelly is full of vitamins, phytonutrients and antioxidants, and it only has a little bit of sugar.

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Standard jellies, however, tend to contain a lot of sugar and have little to no health value. Choosing organic over non-organic makes all the difference when it comes to jelly. Many fruits, particularly grapes and strawberries, have alarmingly high pesticide residues when they aren’t grown organically, making them dangerous to consume.

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Tofu

Tofu is made from soybean curds, making it rich in plant-based protein. It has 9 grams of protein for every 3 ounces and has proven to be an excellent meat substitute for vegetarians and vegans.

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Aside from containing comparable protein to meat, it has notably fewer calories for its protein content. This makes it a much healthier alternative to most meats. Tofu is high in calcium, low in cholesterol and affordable, and it works well in almost any dish that would normally contain meat. It absorbs the flavor of any sauces when cooking.

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Unsweetened Almond Milk

Anyone with gastrointestinal dairy issues is probably familiar with almond milk. Although it’s processed, the unsweetened varieties are good for you. These milks naturally contain vitamin E, but too much sugar in sweetened versions transforms it from a nutritional beverage into something you should avoid.

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Many brands also put additives in their almond milk. Watch out for ingredients like carrageenan and food starches, often used to make almond milk more similar to dairy milk. The best versions contain only almonds and filtered water.

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Frozen Pizza

Frozen pizza isn’t totally healthy, but it's not devoid of nutritious value like many other processed foods. How can frozen pizza be healthy, to some degree? It comes with tomato sauce, which is full of the antioxidant lycopene, and it has cheese, a great source of calcium.

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The best options for frozen pizza are the types with vegetable toppings rather than meats. The meats are usually processed and full of saturated fat, which isn’t good for you. Also, be sure to choose a pizza with a whole grain or cauliflower crust.

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