June 22, 2024


Than a Food Fitter

Reasons to Eat Processed Food, According to a Dietitian, and a List of the Healthiest Processed Foods

5 min read

When you hear the word processed, what comes to mind? Foods that are low in nutritional value, foods that are not healthy, foods to avoid? According to the 2021 Food Marketing Institute U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends survey, 49% of consumers sought out foods with minimal processing, so you’re not alone.


But how many of you rely on a cup (or two) of morning coffee (processed), chocolate to satisfy a daily indulgence (processed) or even protein powder (processed)?

What Are Processed Foods?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a processed food as one that is changed in any way from its natural state. Washing, freezing, chopping, milling, heating, pasteurizing, dehydrating and packaging are all processes. Adding preservatives, vitamins/minerals, flavors are also a form of processing. If you drink kombucha, realize that fermentation is considered to be food processing.

Why the Negative Perception?

There have been studies implicating certain processed foods as increasing the risk for obesity and other health outcomes due to their:

  • Low nutrient density, or few nutrients for the calories.
  • High calorie load, which is also related to serving size.
  • Low fiber, high sugar/fat/salt content.
  • Low satiety, or not very filling.
  • Hyper palatability, which means it’s hard to eat small amounts of these foods because they taste so good.

Here’s my take on this: Are all processed foods created equally? No, but should we eliminate all processed foods from our home? Absolutely not.

After a self-imposed two-week isolation due to a positive COVID-19 test, coupled with inclement weather, I’m so grateful for the #wealthonmyshelf so that there was no need to go food shopping.

What Are the Benefits of Processed Foods?

Shelf stability/nonperishable: This is extremely beneficial when one cannot get to a grocery store, may be traveling or there are supply chain shortages in the supermarket

Time saver: Ready to eat/heat. We all lead busy lives, and after a long day of work, the idea of devoting a significant amount of time to food prep or clean up may not be all that appealing.

A microwaveable rice, can of tomatoes, frozen veggie crumbles and canned beans allow you to whip up a meal with convenience and minimal mess, energy and time.

Food safety. Milk is pasteurized to destroy the growth of harmful bacteria, and processing helps to delay spoilage.

Affordability: Foods in the center of the supermarket have a lower price point. Certainly one should include fresh produce when affordable and available, and fresh fish can be more enjoyable and desirable than canned, but there’s a price tag to consider, as we well as seasonality.

A recent study in the journal Nutrients found that food patterns created using unprocessed foods were significantly more expensive.

Availability: From the dollar store to the high-end supermarket, processed foods are always available.

Versatility for all levels of culinary ability: If you don’t like to cook or be creative in the kitchen, a frozen meal or a rice mix with added tuna and frozen broccoli brings great taste quickly to the table.

Decreased food waste: If you buy fresh fish, you may have to remove skin and bones. This isn’t an issue with some canned fish and fish in pouches.

If you make your own soup, you may have bits and pieces of vegetables that never get used, whereas using a canned soup and adding canned or frozen vegetables means no food waste. And fresh berries spoil a lot faster than frozen berries.

Nutrient amplification with convenience: Many of us fall short when it comes to fiber, potassium, calcium, vitamin C, magnesium and iron, among others. Fortified cereals, canned, dried and frozen fruits and vegetables, peanut butter and canned beans can all help to address these shortfall nutrients.

6 Processed Foods Always in My Home

  • Cereal.
  • Canned beans.
  • Protein powder.
  • Canned tomatoes.
  • Dried fruit and fruit bars.
  • Canned fish.


Both ready-to-eat and hot cereal contribute to the daily fiber, vitamin and mineral intake in a shelf stable, affordable, available and versatile way. Cereal can be paired with milk and fruit, cooked and enhanced with nut butter or baked with egg, or can be the base of a trail mix for snacking and added to smoothies as well.

Canned Beans

I have never met a bean I don’t like, and they appear on our plate or bowls several times a week. Canned beans provide the protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and plant nutrients, and they’re also a vegetable. We love them as beans and greens, a bean or lentil soup and pureed to add a creaminess to sauces.

Protein Powder

I work with active clients who sometimes find it challenging to meet their protein needs, especially if they travel, and/or have limited desire to prepare food. A whey or soy protein isolate protein powder can be consumed as a shake, but also added to cooked cereals, nut butters, sauces and smoothies to optimize protein intake without the need to cook.

Canned Tomatoes

Tomatoes are a family fav in any way, but when fresh tomatoes aren’t in season, my go-to is canned. Tomatoes are high in vitamins, minerals and plant nutrients and bring the umami taste to the plate. Seasoned canned tomatoes mixed with black beans and canned corn is the basis of an easy salsa. Canned tomatoes add extra flavor to a vegetable soup or pasta sauce, and I have even used canned diced tomatoes in a salad when fresh are not to be found.

Dried Fruit and Fruit Bars

I love fruit, but I don’t love paying a small fortune for fruit that’s perishable and may not be as flavorful as I would prefer. The beauty of dried fruit, such as prunes, is that they can be found all year round; they’re shelf stable.

They deliver on nutritional quality. They’re portable and packable. They’re a great way to sweeten a pilaf or roasted vegetables. Add some produce to cereal, quick breads or muffins, and help to reduce the amount of sugar one needs to add when baking because of the sweet taste.

Canned Fish

Canned fish is always on the list. In our house, we enjoy tuna canned in olive oil, but also add canned salmon to a fish soup or canned clams to a clam chowder. Canned fish is a great way to get shelf stable protein that’s cooked and ready to eat, and also a source of heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Canned tuna in olive oil with capers and roasted red peppers is the base of a delicious salad or a sandwich.

So let’s give thanks for the progress in foods that are processed that can add to delicious, convenient and affordable nutrition in our kitchen. Processed foods help us to create dishes with taste, haste and minimal waste.

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