Despite processed food’s bad reputation—which, for the most part, is deserved—there are actually several items you can (and should) indulge in guilt-free. Nutritionists shared with us their top picks for healthy processed foods that they actually approve of and that don’t make them cringe when spotted in someone else’s grocery cart. Find out what they are and then double down on your healthy eating efforts by avoiding these unhealthiest foods on the planet.
Sure, it may come in a container, but that’s not a reason to not befriend this silky goddess. “Yogurt is an excellent source of protein, Vitamin B12, calcium, and a food source of probiotics!” exclaims Rebecca Lewis, RD for HelloFresh, a leading healthy meal kit delivery service. “When buying, read the label and try to select one that is less than 12 grams of sugar per serving. Instead, add the sweetness from fresh fruits you choose yourself.” When you can, go for Greek. It’s got double the protein and oftentimes contains around half the sugar. Again, steer clear of flavored varieties. And for some non-yogurt probiotic ideas, find out what’s worth a look (and what isn’t!) with these dairy-free probiotic products.
2. Frozen Veggies
Don’t let the bag dissuade you! “Frozen vegetables are minimally processed, but retain most of the nutrition during the process,” comments Lisa Hayim, registered dietitian and founder of The WellNecessities. “They may even be more nutrient-rich than fresh because they are picked and frozen at the time they are at their nutritional peak.”
3. Tomato Sauce
Typically, sauces that aren’t homemade don’t fit very nicely into your big plan to eat clean. But there’s a twist when it comes to tomatoes. “Tomato products, such as tomato sauce, contain higher levels of cancer-fighting lycopene than fresh tomatoes. To gain the best benefits, look for varieties with limited added sugar; sugar should not be one of the top three ingredients) and lower in sodium,” suggests Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies. “Selecting varieties with less than 140 mg of sodium per serving is the best choice.”
The corner of Hot Dog Street and Kraut Avenue isn’t exactly the center of skinny town, but this potent condiment is well worth slipping into your diet. “This fermented cabbage is full of health benefits,” says Palinski-Wade. “Thanks to the fermenting process, sauerkraut is a rich source of probiotics which help to aid digestive health. It is also rich in fiber while providing a source of vitamin A and vitamin C. Some studies have found sauerkraut may also offer breast-cancer prevention properties.” Noshing on it is also one of the eating habits for weight loss.
5. Chickpeas and Canned Beans
But we’ll admit that cooking dried beans from scratch when you want a quick weeknight dinner can be a total pain. And while we typically recommend that people stay away from canned products because the lining is probably lined with BPA, canned beans and chickpeas can be total heroes. “They might come in a can, but canned beans are a great source of ready to eat protein,” offers Palinski-Wade. “Packed full of soluble fiber, iron, and resistant starch makes it a great low-fat, affordable, plant-based protein source.” When choosing canned beans (or canned anything), always opt for low-sodium varieties.
You’ve probably heard that granola is a hidden landmine for diet saboteurs like sugar, calories, and even excess sodium. Although that’s largely true, that’s not always the case: “Some granolas are a great source of fiber and even protein. However, many companies add unnecessary sugar or even honey. Be sure to read the label and look for ‘no sugar added.’ A good rule of thumb is to make sure it has less than 10 grams of sugar per serving,” advises Hayim.
7. Veggie Burgers
“I said veggie burgers—not entire frozen meals or TV dinners!” presses Hayim. “The primary ingredient in many veggie burgers can be TVP: textured vegetable protein, which is a product made by extracting soy from soybeans, heating it, and then drying it. Unfortunately, the veggies, nuts, seeds, and beans are usually the secondary ingredients.” The good news? “Now there are awesome brands that have made veggies and legumes the first ingredient on the list, indicating they are primarily made up of real food. Read the labels and avoid ones with modified corn starch or artificial colors or flavors.”
8. Unsweetened Almond Milk
This can be a great option for those with GI sensitivity. But it’s important to note that many of the brands contain food additives, such as carrageenan, gums, and food starches that thicken and stabilize the milk making it more palatable and similar to milk. “Search for an almond milk that only contains just the nut and filtered water. Anything else is unnecessary!” explains Hayim. Luckily, more brands are either launching carrageenan-free lines or starting to eliminate it. (Did you know that Almond Breeze’s Original option quietly went carrageenan-free in October 2015?) Don’t miss our exclusive list of Eat This, Not That! from Trader Joe’s, which includes things like almond milk.
9. Organic Jelly
“I like toast and nothing.” There’s a reason that’s not how the tune goes, folks. “Yes, it is made with sugar. But use just a teaspoon and you also get a dose of antioxidants and phytonutrients that concentrate the disease-fighting compounds,” advise The Nutrition Twins, Tammy Lakatos Shames, RD, CDN, CFT and Lyssie Lakatos, RD, CDN, CFT. “Just keep in mind that it also concentrates pesticide residues, so look for organic varieties. This is especially important when it comes to strawberry and grape varieties, which tend to contain more pesticide residues.”
10. Fortified Cereals
“The fortification process began in the 1920s as a way to address nutritional deficiencies. Some examples are iodine in salt, vitamin D in milk, and iron in cereal,” says Hayim. “Although they are processed, they can be beneficial as they have actually have certain nutrients that the food was lacking or that was removed during the processing.” Having fortified cereals may be a good way to get the recommended amount of vitamins and minerals; they’re often on the list of what pregnant women should eat.
11. Frozen Pizza
It’s not completely innocent and we’re not about to tell you to stock up. It does use a refined bread and can add up in calories when you overdo it. But The Nutrition Twins recommend it because the cheese is a calcium-rich food. “Plus, the tomato sauce is a concentrated source of tomatoes, and the antioxidant lycopene that comes with it,” they continue. But always skip the processed meat add-ons like pepperoni and sausage that are high in saturated fat and that may increase your risk for certain cancers. Go for plain cheese pizza or cheese pizza with veggies.” And if you can find whole grain crusts, then that’s your best option.
12. Freeze-Dried Fruit
“Research has found that freeze-dried fruit retains most, if not all, of the nutrient value of fresh fruit,” offers Palinski-Wade. “The crispy texture makes it a nutritious alternative to a chip while the long shelf life helps to reduce food waste and enhances portability.” Look for brands without any added sugars, i .e. where the ingredients are just fruit and nothing else.
Pickles are processed through fermentation, which was initially done to improve shelf life and food preservation. “But this fermentation helps create probiotics—the good bacteria in your gut which help support the immune system and reduce inflammation in the gut,” says Hayim. Low in calories, they’re also great to nosh on between meals as a light snack.
14. Dark Chocolate
Yep, you have full permission to intelligently indulge. Thanks to its high flavonoid content, dark chocolate has been found to improve cholesterol levels and even lower blood pressure. “Chocolate has also been associated with an increase in the feel-good chemical serotonin, helping to lift your mood. Just make sure to select dark chocolate that’s at least 70% cacao or above to gain the benefits,” advises Palinski-Wade.
15. Ezekiel Bread
“Ezekiel bread is sprouted, which means it is made of several different types of grains and legumes. Unlike traditional bread, it is not refined or pulverized whole wheat,” shares Hayim. “When searching for any bread, make sure that whole wheat is listed as the first ingredient, since a bread can be called ‘whole wheat’ just as long as wheat is involved, even if it’s not 100% and is made up of other refined ingredients.”
16. Peanut Butter
Regardless of which camp you’re from—creamy or crunchy—this smooth spread is a solid bet when it comes to packaged foods. “Peanut Butter is an excellent source of fiber and healthy unsaturated plant-based fats. But make sure to eat in moderation as one tablespoon has seven grams of fat and 63 calories,” says Lewis. “When buying, read the label and ensure there are no added sugar or high fructose corn syrup, and that there are no hydrogenated oils, which is a fancy way of saying trans fats.” Consult our exclusive report on peanut butters—ranked to find out the absolute worst (and best!) PB that you can pick.
17. String Cheese
Like most things on this list, the exact product you pick will make a world of difference. You can’t just opt for any string cheese; mozzarella or cheddar from top brands like Horizon Organic are usually your best bets. “From a saturated fat perspective, low-fat cheeses are better for you and can also contain fewer calories, which is good because it can be all too easy to get a lot of calories from cheese,” says Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietitian and founder of Isabel Smith Nutrition.