Americans eat more packaged food than nearly all other populations and consume 31 percent more packaged food than fresh, according to a "New York Times" article published in April 2010. Although the term "processed food," which refers to foods that have been altered from their original form during manufacturing, often carries a negative connotation, they do provide benefits. To best determine which processed foods suit your needs and preferences, seek guidance from a qualified health-care professional.
Processed foods provide useful options if you have difficulty fitting routine market trips and cooking time into your schedule. Canned beans and lentils, for example, simply require heating and, if desired, added seasoning. Preparing dried beans can take anywhere from one to more than eight hours, according to MayoClinic.com. And, while instant rice takes minutes to prepare, long-grain rice takes more than an hour. Although nutritious processed foods are ideal, even less-healthy options, such as deli meats, baked chips and flour tortillas, are healthier than skipping meals or dining habitually on fast food.
Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables can be as nutritious as fresh produce, according to registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association Ximena Jimenez. And, your body absorbs some nutrients in canned varieties with greater ease than with fresh. A host of breakfast cereals, juices, breads and soy products are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Avoid processed foods rich in added sugars, however. Canned fruit stored in heavy syrup and colorful cereals are less nutritious. Choose breads, rice, cereals and pasta that list whole grains as the first ingredient to ensure ample fiber and nutrients. To maintain a modest sodium intake, choose low-sodium or no-salt-added canned beans, vegetables and soups. Other nutritious processed foods include natural peanut and almond butters, water-packed tuna and salmon, and low-fat yogurt.
Preservatives extend the shelf-life of many processed foods. Without preservatives, commercial breads, whether white or whole grain, would spoil fairly quickly. Frozen fruits and vegetables last far longer than fresh leafy greens in your refrigerator. Stocking up on canned, frozen and packaged foods may also help to prevent a food shortage if you're suddenly unable to grocery shop or prepare meals due to an illness or bad weather. To ensure lasting nutritional quality and the taste of canned vegetables and fruits, Jimenez recommends removing leftovers from the can and placing them in air-tight containers to store in your refrigerator or freezer. Hydrogenated vegetable oils, which may damage your cardiovascular health, preserve the flavor and shelf-life of many commercially baked cookies, cakes, pastries and snack foods.
Taste and Appearance
Many spices and flavors, both natural and artificial, bring out the best flavor in processed foods, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Commercial granola, for example, might taste bland without cinnamon, maple syrup or sugar. Low-fat popcorn without salt or butter flavoring is less popular than salted popcorn, likely because of its enhanced flavor. Artificial coloring and sweeteners are used to enhance foods' color and overall appearance, which can make food more appetizing. Cheddar cheese is orange because compounds from bright-colored plants are used to color it during processing. In its natural grayish tone, it might not seem as appealing.