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It’s Not All Bad: These ‘Processed’ Foods Are Actually Good for You

July 01, 2021

The language of food can be confusing at the least, and deceptive at most. Descriptions like “all natural” and “unprocessed” are used by advertisers and activists alike in the war to win over consumers to a particular product. Jessica Crandall, a registered dietician at the Heart & Vascular Institute's Center for Advanced Heart Failure, said it’s important to go beyond the words on the ad or the front label and read the ingredients. Look for red-flag words like “high fructose corn syrup” and “partially hydrogenated oil” but also pay attention to the amounts of added sodium and sugar. Even though salt and sugar are “natural” ingredients, eating foods with lots of either isn’t good for you. And there are some types of processed foods that are good for you, and in fact might be a better choice as a consumer looking to save money and reduce waste. “Basically when we think of processed foods, people think of all those snack foods,” Crandall said. “What you need to look at is, how much of this (product) is a whole food and how much is added to it. If there are chemical-sounding words, that’s not food.” Remember, "processed" can mean something as harmless as chopping vegetables or fruits before freezing and bagging. Here are some processed foods that are good for you:

  • Low-fat and nonfat milk.
  • Yogurt.
  • Whole-grain breakfast cereals and breads
  • Frozen fruits and vegetables (no sugar, syrup or sauce).
  • Dried fruits.
  • Oatmeal.
  • Chickpeas and other canned beans.
  • Frozen fish and seafood (no fish sticks or breaded fish).
  • Canned salmon and tuna.
  • Sauerkraut.
  • Veggie burgers.
  • Roasted nuts and seeds.
  • Granola.
  • Unsweetened almond milk.
  • Peanut butter.
  • Pickles.
  • Tomato sauce.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are obviously the first choice for least-processed food consumption, but sometimes they aren’t an option, either due to cost or availability. Canned fruits and vegetables are typically inexpensive, but Crandall warned about added sugars to canned fruits. She also noted that “low salt” on a label should be further investigated -- it is often replaced by potassium, which can be harmful to people taking specific medications or who have kidney issues. Frozen fruits and vegetables are great choices for those looking for affordability and least amount of waste, as they don’t go bad like fresh does. “The quality is better because they are frozen at their peak, with all their nutrients intact,” Crandall said. Another food that people might not think of as processed is milk, which is pasteurized for safety to kill harmful bacteria. “It’s also important to note the difference between ‘processed’ and ‘fortified,’” Crandall said. “Milk is fortified with Vitamin D. Flour and many kinds of bread are fortified with folic acid and B vitamins. These are helping people get important nutrients they need, so that’s positive.”