As much joy as family dinners and meals out with friends can be, we are a culture of snackers. We eat protein bars while walking to work. We drink our vegetables in smoothie form in the car. We snack while we cook dinner—and again after dinner too (or is that just me?). And even if your Sunday meal prep game is on point, it’s nearly impossible to be so masterful at advance planning that you’ll never be in a situation where you just need a snack like, right now. And in those situations, your only option is processed food—essentially a dirty word in wellness.
The legal, official definition of a processed food is “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling.” So basically, if it’s not a raw food in the produce aisle, it’s been processed in some way to get to that grocery shelf.
Diets high in processed foods are linked to poor health outcomes, including unwanted weight gain and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and early mortality. But it’s also important to note that some foods are more processed than others: A snack bar with a long ingredients list that includes artificial flavorings and oils (or, ahem, an order of chicken nuggets at your fav fast food joint) are inherently more processed than just a bag of salted peanuts—and thus not are all equally problematic. This sliding scale is exactly what registered dietitian Jenna Gorham, RD, says is important to keep in mind when buying packaged foods. “Take a look at the nutrition facts panel and ingredients lists. Choose processed foods that use simple ingredients and are lower in sugar and salt and offer protein or fiber,” she says.
There are still a few red flags to look out for: “Hydrogenated oils are trans fats which should be limited in the diet,” she says. “Trans fats have been extensively linked to heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. As of June 2018, trans fats have been banned from the food supply; however, as companies make the transition they are still found in some processed food products. Read the ingredients for hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils.”
Fortunately, food brands know consumers are on the hunt for healthier products and grocery store aisles are full of better-for-you packaged snack options. Rounded up here are nine selections that all sync up with Gorham’s advice (no shady oils; short, simple ingredients lists). As far as processed food goes, these are some of your best bets.
Scroll down to see nine minimally processed snacks you can feel good about eating on the go.
Healthy, minimally processed snacks
When you do have time to meal prep your snacks, here are some recipes that will satisfy your craving for something salty. These healthier homemade Twix bars are good, too.
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