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 has been processed in some way to get to that grocery shelf.
Meal regimes that are high in processed foods are linked to poor health outcomes, including increased risk of chronic illness like cardiovascular disease and early mortality. But it is 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) is inherently more processed than just a bag of salted peanuts—and thus not are all equal in their nutrient value.
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. Because yes, healthy processed foods do exist.
There are still a couple of 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. Scan the ingredients list for hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils."
Fortunately, food brands know consumers are on the hunt for healthier processed foods—meaning more nutritious grab-and-go options—and grocery store aisles are chock full of better-for-you packaged snacks. 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 and other healthy processed foods you can feel good about eating on the go.
Healthy, minimally processed snacks
Originally posted June 19, 2019 with additional reporting by Betty Gold.
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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