7 Processed Foods Your Body Wants You to Eat

Yes, some processed foods are actually good for you

Stephanie Thurrott
Mar 4 · 6 min read
Image by marco aurelio from Pixabay

Processed foods get a bad rap for a good reason. Lots of them are full of unhealthy fats, sugar, and sodium, and food manufacturers engineer these ingredients in ways that tempt you to overeat.

The worst processed foods are ultra-processed. They contain long lists of ingredients and additives that are created in a factory, not cooked in a kitchen.

If you time-traveled back 100 years, you wouldn’t even recognize them as food. Think chicken nuggets, soda, and sugary cereals.

But the act of processing food falls on a spectrum. Anytime anyone does something to a food item, except maybe washing it, it’s processed. Frozen food? Processed. Meat? Processed, unless you’re hunting and butchering it yourself. Bread? processed.

And yet, versions of these processed foods that are close to their natural versions can be healthy choices. In fact, for some foods, a little processing can make them even better choices than their straight-from-the-earth counterparts.

Here are seven processed foods you might not want to pass up.

Frozen fish

How they’re processed

In most cases, they are skinned, cleaned, and cut into filets or steaks (though you can find whole frozen fish, too). A lot of fish is frozen on the boat, soon after it’s caught.

And farm-raised fish is frozen right away, too. That means flavor and nutrition are at their peak — the more time that passes before fish are frozen or eaten, the more nutrients are lost.

Fresh fish is great, but you need to live relatively close to a large body of water to get good fresh fish. And some types of fish lose their flavor quickly, so if you want the best-tasting fish, you need to buy and eat them soon after they’re caught.

Why they’re good for you

Most types of fish are good low-fat sources of protein, and fattier fishes have lots of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. You can also turn to fish for vitamin D, vitamin B2, calcium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, iodine, magnesium, and potassium.

Canned beans

How they’re processed

Canned beans like chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, and lentils are blanched, sealed in cans with water and salt, and cooked.

Dry beans come out ahead in a lot of ways — they’re cheaper and they have less packaging — but for many types, you need to soak them overnight and cook them for hours. With canned beans, you pop open the lid, drain or rinse them, and you’re ready to heat and eat.

Why they’re good for you

Canned beans are high in protein, fiber, folate, iron, Vitamin B1, magnesium, potassium, copper, and zinc. They can be high in sodium, but rinsing them gets rid of about half the sodium (you can also find low-sodium versions).

Dried herbs and spices

How they’re processed

Dried herbs and spices are — you guessed it — dried. Drying them preserves their flavor and makes them shelf-stable. That doesn’t mean they last forever, though. Depending on the type, they’ll probably last you one to three years. If you smell them and there’s not much of an aroma, it’s probably time to toss them.

Fun fact: According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, herbs come from the leafy part of the plant while spices come from the root, stem, seed, fruit, flower, or bark.

Why they’re good for you

There are lots of different kinds of herbs and spices, and they all bring different benefits. Some are excellent sources of antioxidants, some spicy foods may reduce your risk of cancer and heart disease, and many herbs and spices can help lower glucose and cholesterol levels.

If you want more information, this 2019 report in the Journal of AOAC International breaks down the health benefits of chili pepper, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, turmeric, fenugreek, rosemary, and garlic.

Yogurt

How it’s processed

Healthy bacteria are added so the yogurt can ferment. The manufacturer might also add stabilizers, additives, and sweeteners.

Fun fact: You can make your own yogurt at home, and if you have an Instant Pot it’s easy. But it’s still a processed food unless you milked the cow yourself. When you buy yogurt, it’s thickened, heated, and pasteurized.

Why it’s good for you

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, yogurt is rich in protein, calcium, phosphorus, and some B vitamins. The healthy bacteria in yogurt may help fight obesity, diabetes, and some digestive conditions.

Frozen vegetables

How they’re processed

Those veggies in that bag in the freezer are washed, chopped, possibly blanched, and frozen.

Why they’re good for you

Sure, nothing beats fresh-from-the-farmers’-market produce. But frozen veggies have a few things going for them:

  • They might have more nutrients. Harvard Health reports that fresh produce can lose half its vitamins when it’s stored or cooked, and carrots lose 80% of their vitamin C in a week. I don’t know about you, but a bag of carrots lasts me a lot longer than a week.
  • They last a long time. Raise your hand if you’ve ever tossed out a wilted bunch of greens or a moldy red pepper that migrated to the back of your crisper drawer. You need to eat frozen veggies eventually, but they don’t spoil quickly.
  • You can use the amount you need.
  • You can buy mixed veggies and get an assortment.

Lean meat

How it’s processed

Animals are killed and their meat is butchered into various cuts — steaks, filets, legs, breasts, and ground meat, to name a few. Different animals break down into different cuts. Meat might also be frozen, cured, or dried.

Why it’s good for you

Lean beef and pork are high in protein and iron. Chicken is high in protein and lower in fat.

Keep in mind, there are important issues to consider beyond processing when it comes to meat consumption. If humane treatment of animals and fighting against climate change are important to you, you’ll want to choose locally raised or organic meats where you know how the animals were treated, and you’ll want to limit your consumption of animal products.

Whole-grain bread

How it’s processed

To make whole-grain bread, whole-grain flour is milled; combined with ingredients like yeast, salt, butter, and sugar or honey; and baked. When you’re buying whole-grain bread, check the label. Some types have additives or preservatives you might not want to eat.

Even if you make your own whole-grain bread, it’s still processed, unless you’re milling the flour yourself. But that doesn’t mean it’s not healthy!

Why it’s good for you

Whole-grain bread contains fiber, iron, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin B, and vitamin E in much higher levels than in white bread. That’s because with white bread, the outer shell of the wheat grain, which contains most of the nutrients, gets removed.

The bottom line

Ultra-processed foods that are designed to make you overeat and don’t offer much nutrition cast a shadow over other, healthier processed foods.

Foods like frozen fish, canned beans, dried herbs and spices, yogurt, frozen vegetables, lean meat, and whole-grain bread are minimally processed and have a short list of ingredients, so they can be healthy choices.

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Thanks to Michelle Loucadoux, MBA, Kristina Segarra, and Alice Goldbloom

Stephanie Thurrott

Written by

I write stories that make our lives better. I learn something with everything I write, and I hope you do too. Get my newsletter: stephaniethurrott.com/medium

In Fitness And In Health

A fast-growing health and fitness community dedicated to sharing knowledge, lessons, and suggestions to living happier, healthier lives.

Stephanie Thurrott

Written by

I write stories that make our lives better. I learn something with everything I write, and I hope you do too. Get my newsletter: stephaniethurrott.com/medium

In Fitness And In Health

A fast-growing health and fitness community dedicated to sharing knowledge, lessons, and suggestions to living happier, healthier lives.

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