Some packaged foods are quite health and worth using
Processed tomatoes can be lower in sodium than jarred tomato sauces. (iStock)
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The words “convenience” and “processed” are usually shorthand for foods of less-than-ideal nutritional value. But not all packaged foods are highly refined, vitamin-stripped or loaded with saturated fat, sodium and added sugars.
In fact, an elite group of healthy packaged foods takes good-for-you foods and makes them easier to use.
“If choices are made wisely, the nutritional quality of some ‘processed’ foods can be equal to or may even be greater than the fresh,” says Alice Lichtenstein, the Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. That includes frozen foods that let you use only as much as you need and shelf-stable products that minimize the need for constant grocery runs.
Here are six of our favorite healthy packaged foods.
Canned or boxed tomatoes
Tomatoes contain lycopene, an antioxidant found to reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers, and possibly strokes. A study of more than 1,000 middle-aged men found that those with the highest blood levels of lycopene were 55 percent less likely to have a stroke than men with the lowest levels.
Slicing a tomato is easy, but you’ll often get more lycopene from tomato products. And processed tomatoes can be lower in sodium than jarred tomato sauces.
How to use them: Sauté with a crushed clove of garlic in a bit of olive oil, then add leafy greens such as spinach or kale and some beans, or top with an egg.
Wild salmon is seasonal, and fisheries harvest more than they’re able to sell fresh. So much of it is funneled into frozen or shelf-stable forms. The benefit: Canned salmon costs less, and wild salmon is lower in calories and saturated fat than farmed salmon.
How to use it: Mix with pasta and a handful of greens or prepared frozen veggies along with a dollop of pesto or olive tapenade. Or use it as you would canned tuna.
With about 130 calories and 13 grams of fat per two-tablespoon serving, you might not think of pesto as a health food. But most of the fat comes from olive oil and pine nuts, so it’s the healthy unsaturated type. These star ingredients, along with the basil, cheese and garlic, pack a lot of rich flavor and disease-fighting power. And small amount of pesto goes a long way in terms of flavor.
How to use it: Use pesto as a condiment for chicken, fish, grains or roasted veggies.
Precooked packaged grains
Having three servings of whole grains per day (instead of none) may decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke by about 20 and 12 percent, respectively, according to a 2016 BMJ study. But boiling them from a dry state takes time, and it’s difficult to prepare just the right amount for one person or two without having leftovers, oversize portions or a lot of waste.
Enter precooked grains, such as farro, quinoa and more, which can be ready in a few minutes. You can find them in shelf-stable microwaveable bowls or pouches, or frozen. It’s best to buy varieties without added salt.
How to use them: Put together your own power bowl. Top grains with some quick stir-fried veggies and cooked chicken. (Also see Consumer Reports’ review of frozen grain bowls.) Or take some out of the package and microwave in a bowl with some fruit, cinnamon and milk for a healthy breakfast.
Packaged hard-boiled eggs
Boiling eggs isn’t so time-consuming, but it can be tough to get them just right — and peeling them can be messy. Precooked eggs eliminate those problems, still supply protein and are low in saturated fat. They also contain lutein and zeaxanthin, compounds that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and may play a role in reducing age-related macular degeneration.
As for the cholesterol in eggs, it’s not likely to have a significant effect on blood cholesterol levels for healthy people.
How to use them: Make egg salad and serve on whole-grain toast, slice and add eggs to salads, or chop and toss them with asparagus. Combine eggs with cooked potatoes, olive oil and curry as a main or side dish.
Beans are always a healthy option. They’re a top food source of resistant starch, a prebiotic fiber that bacteria in the gut use to produce short-chain fatty acid compounds, which may help prevent colon cancer, among other benefits. In addition, the combination of protein, fiber and vitamins makes legumes nutrient-dense and filling.
Canned beans are convenient, but their sodium count varies. Frozen legumes have the convenience of canned with zero salt added. What’s more, you can take out just as much as you need, heat and eat.
How to use them: Defrost in the microwave and use in salads and soups or combine with grains or pasta. Serve black beans with chopped tomatoes and onion alongside scrambled eggs. Or for a healthy snack, toss defrosted chickpeas in oil, sprinkle with your favorite spices, and roast until crispy.