If you’ve been reading my work for any length of time, you know that eating the right food is essential to your health. And you also know that the right foods, most often, are whole foods—organic, unprocessed, just the way it would look if you plucked it off the tree or the vine. But is that always true? Are there any processed foods that can be healthy too? More importantly, are there any prepared meals—or nearly prepared meals—that can be just as good for you as something made from scratch? The answer is yes—as long as you know what you’re looking for.
How To Spot Healthy Processed Food
First things first—not all processed food is the same.
In fact, you can broadly put most processed foods into four categories.
The first category is barely processed. For instance, fruits or vegetables that have been frozen, to lock in nutrients.
The second category are minimally processed foods used for cooking. The perfect example of this sort is olive oil. Obviously, olive oil doesn’t grow on trees—olives do. Yet olive oil is perfectly healthy.
In many cases, foods in this second category are particularly dense—they’re often made by squeezing larger foods into small packages, like olive oil. For that reason, they pack a big nutrient punch—but as long as you don’t overdo it, you’re fine with most of these cooking ingredients.
The third category are foods that have been fully processed—but don’t contain a lot of foreign substances. In most cases, they’re made up of just two or three ingredients. Salted nuts count here, as do canned fish. Even some chips—if, for example, they are made of straight cornmeal and just baked, not fried or cooked with lots of oil.
You have to pay a lot of attention to foods in this third category. They are often fine. But there are also lots of foods that try to look like these foods, even though they’ve got a bunch of additives, or are cooked in an unhealthy manner, like frying. For foods in this third category, you have to take lots of time reading the label and make sure you aren’t falling for fake wholesomeness.
Finally, the fourth category are the ultra-processed foods. These are entirely made-up concoctions—often made up of several different processed foods, or industrial chemicals, all smushed together.
Pop-Tarts are an ultra-processed food—it’s a challenge to identify any base ingredient. Do you know the animal that pepperoni comes from? If not, you can be forgiven—pepperoni has so many ingredients in it, and so much processing, that it barely resembles anything found in nature.
Ultra-processed food tends to be some of the worst stuff for you—for a few reasons.
One, they’re stuffed full of chemicals. In theory, each of these chemicals is supposed to be fine (not good) for you—but, in practice, that really just means it isn’t an instant poison that will cause immediate illness. But many of these chemicals have been linked to long-term harm, like heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
On top of that, most ultra-processed foods are just cheap goop made more attractive to your palette by adding loads of salt, sugar, and fat. All three ingredients are fine in moderation, but there’s nothing moderate about ultra-processed foods.
Bottom line? Most ultra-processed foods are severely lacking in basic nutrients, so you can see why we take such a hard line against them in these pages.
The Healthy Processed Foods You Want
You can probably guess, I’m going to tell you to stay clear of all the processed foods that fall into category four.
Unfortunately, the average American gets 60% of their intake from ultra-processed foods. That’s way too much.
But processed foods from the other three categories don’t have to be bad for you at all. In fact, in many cases, they are fantastic.
For instance, almond butter—made purely from almonds, without any added sugar or oils—is a fabulous source of nutrition. Almonds contain loads of helpful nutrients like vitamin E, high-quality protein, calcium, and magnesium. As long as you don’t eat too much—more than a tablespoon at a time—almond butter deserves to be in your rotation.
And it’s very processed—it’s straight out of category three.
Likewise, fermented foods like kimchi are exceptionally healthy for you. Kimchi not only contains all the nutrients of the base ingredients, but the fermentation itself gives you a food that’s fabulous for your digestive tract.
But again, kimchi is very processed—you certainly can’t find it in nature. We have to ferment it—and it’s a good thing we do.
Meanwhile, frozen fruits and veggies, category two, are great for you. Both types of food lose nutrients quickly after being harvested, so frozen versions are the next best thing to eating them straight out of the ground, off the branch or vine. In this case, the (barely) processed version is superior to many unprocessed states.
Healthy Food On The Go
My favorite benefit to healthy processed food is healthy fast food.
For instance, there are more and more healthy frozen meals you can find in your grocer’s freezer section. I’m not talking about TV dinners. I’m talking about fresh, whole ingredients you can recognize on the ingredient label, cooked in a delicious way, and then frozen.
They’re great for you. Easy to prepare when time is short. And, as an added side benefit, they tend to be proper portion sizes, unlike the massive meals you usually get from the freezer.
Pico de gallo—a heavily processed, but extremely healthy food—can be added to almost anything to make it more nutritious, more tasty, and more exciting. If you’re in a rush, you can take a portion of beans with brown rice, add pico de gallo, and you’ve now got a fast, healthy meal.
Feel like having something savory, and fast, but don’t want to hurt your nutritious goals? Take some mashed sweet potatoes, shape them into pancakes, and sauté them quickly in a splash of olive oil.
Or take ground buffalo meat and make buffalo burgers for the family. Either recipe will take less than 15 minutes to prepare.
When you realize that there are plenty of healthy, easy-to-prepare, processed foods out there, you realize that it doesn’t matter how little time you have. Or what flavors you’re craving.
With a little creativity and a small amount of preparation, you can create delicious, nutritious meals in no time.
I’ve given you some great starters. From here, think about the foods you enjoy most, and think up ways to prepare something similar using healthy processed foods, which don’t take a lot of time to prepare.
Once you get started, you’ll be surprised how fast your list grows.
And the longer it is, the less likely you’ll ever be tempted by the ultra-processed foods out there again.