20 Reasonably Healthy Processed Foods

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Processed foods have a fairly bad reputation, and they are a frequent target for criticism.

When we think of processed foods, we often imagine packaged foods that are simultaneously high in refined carbohydrates and dripping in fat.

However, not all processed foods are “bad” for you.

Perhaps surprisingly, many processed foods provide a good range of nutrients.

This article provides a list of 20 reasonably healthy processed foods.

A Trolley In Front of Processed Foods In a Supermarket.

1) Almond Milk (Unsweetened)

Almond milk is one of several “milk substitutes,” and it is a popular option with vegans and those who have sensitivities to dairy.

How is it processed?

The production process of almond milk is relatively simple and involves soaking and blending almonds in water.

Some almond milk contains almonds and water, while others may also include various additives and sweeteners.

Quick facts

  • Typical ingredients: Water, almonds, tricalcium phosphate, salt, flavors, emulsifiers
  • Calories: 41 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 1.99 g
  • Fiber: 0.96 g
  • Sugars: 1.01 g
  • Fat: 3 g
  • Protein: 1 g

The nutritional values are per cup (240-ml) serving (1).

Why it’s a healthy choice

Almond milk is low in calories, and the unsweetened variants are low in carbohydrates too.

The product typically offers a good amount of calcium, and it may be fortified with other nutrients, such as vitamin D.

2) String Cheese

Despite its often colorful packaging, string cheese is not far away from regular cheese nutritionally.

These cheese products offer a similar nutrient profile to regular cheese, and they are highly convenient and portable.

How is it processed?

The process of making string cheese is very straightforward. It involves heating mozzarella and then stretching it, which makes the cheese take on a “stringy” form (2).

Quick facts

  • Typical ingredients: Mozzarella cheese
  • Calories: 85 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 1 g
  • Fiber: 0 g
  • Sugars: 0 g
  • Fat: 6 g
  • Protein: 7 g

The above nutritional data is for a typical 1 ounce (28-gram) serving (3).

Why it’s a healthy choice

Similar to all cheese, string cheese is an excellent source of calcium, protein, and selenium.

3) Cottage Cheese

Cottage cheese is a protein-dense cheese product usually made with skim milk.

How is it processed?

Typically, producers add a food-grade acid (such as citric acid) or a bacterial starter culture that forms lactic acid to milk.

The addition of this acid causes the cheese to curdle and form into solids, after which it undergoes heating, cooling, washing, and draining processes (4).

Quick facts

  • Typical ingredients: Skim Milk, bacterial culture, cream, salt
  • Calories: 81 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 4.76 g
  • Fiber: 0 g
  • Sugars: 4.0 g
  • Fat: 2.27 g
  • Protein: 10.45 g

The above nutritional values represent a 3.5 oz (100-gram) serving of cottage cheese made with skim milk (5).

Why it’s a healthy choice

Cottage cheese offers a substantial amount of protein for very few calories.

Additionally, it is a good source of calcium, selenium, and more.

4) Curry Powder

Curry powder is a popular and flavorful combination of various dried herbs and spices.

The powder is available in a range of different heat levels, and it originates in India.

How is it processed?

The production process of curry powder is straightforward and involves blending a variety of dried spices.

Quick facts

  • Typical ingredients: Coriander, turmeric, cumin, paprika, cloves, fenugreek, chili powder.
  • Calories: 20.5 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 3.52 g
  • Fiber: 3.35 g
  • Sugars: 0.17 g
  • Fat: 0.88 g
  • Protein: 0.9 g

This nutrition profile is for an average serving size of one tablespoon (6).

Why it’s a healthy choice

Herbs and spices are incredibly nutrient-dense. Even one tablespoon of curry powder provides large amounts of manganese in addition to small to moderate amounts of other nutrients.

Curry powder is also one of the richest dietary sources of polyphenols, which may have potential health benefits (7, 8),

5) Dark Chocolate

All chocolate is delicious, but the darker variety offers more cocoa and less sugar.

How is it processed?

Refining cocoa beans into chocolate involves putting the beans through a fermentation and drying process.

After this, they are roasted and then melted into chocolate liquor, at which point sugar, potentially milk, and any other ingredients are mixed in (9).

Quick facts

  • Typical ingredients: Cocoa mass, cocoa butter, sugar, potentially milk powder and soy lecithin.
  • Calories: 170 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 10.0 g
  • Fiber: 5.01 g
  • Sugars: 4.0 g
  • Fat: 15 g
  • Protein: 3.0 g

The above nutritional information is for a three-square (30-gram) serving (10).

Why it’s a healthy choice

Dark chocolate is surprisingly nutrient-dense, and it is an excellent source of copper, iron, and magnesium (11).

Cocoa products, such as dark chocolate, are also a rich source of polyphenols. Systematic reviews suggest that cocoa polyphenols may have a variety of benefits, such as improving health markers of cardiovascular risk (12, 13).

6) Hummus

Hummus is a tasty dip that originates in the Middle East.

It now enjoys popularity around the world, and it’s among the world’s favorite condiments.

How is it processed?

Hummus features boiled and then mashed chickpeas mixed into a paste together with sesame seeds, olive oil, lemon, and garlic.

Quick facts

  • Typical ingredients: Chickpeas, sesame seeds, olive oil, lemon, garlic.
  • Calories: 177 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 20.1 g
  • Fiber: 4.0 g
  • Sugars: 0.27 g
  • Fat: 8.59 g
  • Protein: 4.86 g

The above nutrition facts are per 3.5 oz (100-gram) serving of hummus (14).

Why it’s a healthy choice

Hummus is one of the world’s oldest processed foods, and it offers a  good range of nutrients.

It is particularly high in manganese, copper, iron, folate, and phosphorus. It’s also a rich source of fiber.

7) Kimchi

Kimchi is incredibly popular in its homeland of Korea.

In recent years, this spicy cabbage-based dish has increased in popularity around the world too.

How is it processed?

Kimchi is another traditional processed food, and its origins go back thousands of years (15).

There are many different kimchi recipes, but the most famous involves covering napa cabbage in a paste made from chili powder, fish sauce, salt, garlic, ginger, and sugar.

The kimchi is then left to undergo a lacto-fermentation process.

Quick facts

  • Typical ingredients: Cabbage, radish, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, salt
  • Calories: 19.6 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 2.93 g
  • Fiber: 0.84 g
  • Sugars: 1.30 g
  • Fat: 0.36 g
  • Protein: 1.86 g

The above nutrition facts come from this full guide to kimchi, and represent a serving size of 3.5 oz (100 grams).

Why it’s a healthy choice

Kimchi offers large amounts of vitamin C, vitamin K, and carotenoids.

Research also shows that kimchi is a good source of several probiotic bacterial strains, which may have benefits for gut health (16).

8) Marinara Sauce

Marinara sauce is a rich and flavorful tomato-based sauce with Italian origins.

How is it processed?

The process of making marinara sauce is straightforward, and it involves blending and then cooking a combination of tomatoes with a range of seasonings.

Quick facts

  • Typical ingredients: Tomatoes, onions, olive oil, garlic, oregano, basil
  • Calories: 70.1 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 6.0 g
  • Fiber: 1.02 g
  • Sugars: 4.0 g
  • Fat: 4.0 g
  • Protein: 2.0 g

These nutritional values are per 1/2 cup (113-gram) serving (17).

Why it’s a healthy choice

Marinara combines tomatoes and onions with a variety of spices.

Processed tomato products are an excellent source of carotenoids, and the processing increases the bioavailability of lycopene (18).

Lycopene is a type of carotenoid thought to potentially play a role in enhancing the immune system (19).

However, it is worth noting that some marinara sauce products may contain large amounts of vegetable oils and added sugar.

The more traditional marinara products should contain the previously listed typical ingredients.

9) Meat Jerky

Jerky is a type of processed meat product that involves dehydrating thin strips of beef, pork, turkey, or other meat varieties.

Seafood varieties of jerky are also popular.

How is it processed?

Meat (or fish) is cut into small pieces and then dried, usually by a commercial dehydrator.

Some jerky brands will contain only meat, salt, and spices, while others may include sweeteners and additional flavorings.

Quick facts

  • Typical ingredients: Meat/fish, salt, spices
  • Calories: 120 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 1.0 g
  • Fiber: 1.0 g
  • Sugars: 0 g
  • Fat: 3.0 g
  • Protein: 22.0 g

The nutritional values above are for one ounce (28 grams) of beef jerky (20).

Why it’s a healthy choice

As shown in the nutritional data, beef jerky is extremely rich in protein.

Since it has been dehydrated, the amount of protein per gram is very high.

Jerky is also an excellent source of B vitamins, iron, and zinc.

10) Miso

Japanese Miso Soup In a Bowl.

Miso is a fermented soybean paste that features heavily in Japanese cuisine.

This popular processed food is usually made into a soup, and it tastes delicious.

How is it processed?

To make miso, producers mix soybeans, a grain, and a bacterial starter culture, and then leave it to ferment.

Once the miso develops the desired taste characteristics, large amounts of salt are added to stop the fermentation process (21).

Quick facts

  • Typical ingredients: Barley, rice, koji starter, salt
  • Calories: 33.7 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 4.31 g
  • Fiber: 0.92 g
  • Sugars: 1.05 g
  • Fat: 1.02 g
  • Protein: 2.17 g

These nutritional values are per tablespoon (17-gram) serving (22).

Why it’s a healthy choice

Miso offers a good range of vitamins and minerals for very few calories.

Furthermore, providing it isn’t cooked at high temperatures, it can be a source of probiotics.

Interestingly though, research suggests that even heat-killed bacterial strains may still have beneficial effects (23).

11) Natto

Natto is a mainstay of Japanese cuisine, and people value it highly for its purported health benefits.

This popular soybean dish comes from soybeans fermented with bacterial cultures.

The product’s slimy texture can be offputting for some people, but natto is a highly nutritious food.

How is it processed?

The process for making natto requires soaking and then cooking soybeans.

Once fully cooked, the soybeans are mixed with a bacterium known as ‘natto kin’ (Bacillus subtilis) and fermented for 24 hours (24).

Quick facts

  • Typical ingredients: Soybeans, salt, Bacillus subtilis
  • Calories: 120 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 7.19 g
  • Fiber: 3.06 g
  • Sugars: 2.77 g
  • Fat: 6.24 g
  • Protein: 11.00 g

The above nutrition profile is for a 2-oz (57-gram) serving of natto (25).

Why it’s a healthy choice

Natto is an excellent source of numerous minerals, including iron, magnesium, copper, potassium, and zinc.

Furthermore, it is the most concentrated dietary source of menaquinone (vitamin K2).

The specific variety of vitamin K2 in natto is menaquinone-7, and this nutrient is thought to play an important role in skeletal and cardiovascular health (26, 27).

12) Peanut Butter

Peanut butter is a tasty spread made from peanuts, and it is prevalent throughout the world.

How is it processed?

To make the product, peanuts are first shelled and roasted. After this, they go through a grinding process, which turns the peanuts into a smooth paste (28).

Some peanut butter contains added ingredients such as sweeteners and vegetable oils, but some are just pure crushed peanuts and salt.

Quick facts

  • Typical ingredients: Peanuts, salt, vegetable oil
  • Calories: 95.7 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 3.57 g
  • Fiber: 0.8 g
  • Sugars: 1.68 g
  • Fat: 8.22 g
  • Protein: 3.55 g

The above-listed values are for one tablespoon (16 grams) of peanut butter (29).

Why it’s a healthy choice

Peanut butter is a good source of protein, fiber, monounsaturated fat, and several essential nutrients,

It is also relatively affordable and very convenient and versatile to use.

13) Pickles

Pickles, also known as gherkins, are minimally processed food made by pickling cucumbers in a brine solution containing salt or vinegar.

Originally the pickling process was used to preserve food, but it is now used simply because people enjoy the taste.

Due to their acetic acid content, pickles have a slightly sour taste.

How are they processed?

Pickling involves either putting the cucumbers into a brine solution featuring vinegar and spices or by a lacto-fermentation process using salt (30).

The pickles will be ready after a few days, and the pickling process requires no longer than a week.

Commercial preservatives may be added to give the pickles a longer life, but they are not necessary.

Quick facts

  • Typical ingredients: Cucumbers, pickling spices, salt, vinegar
  • Calories: 11 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 2.26 g
  • Fiber: 1.2 g
  • Sugars: 1.06 g
  • Fat: 0.2 g
  • Protein: 0.33 g

These nutritional values are for a 3.5 oz (100-gram) serving (31).

Why they are a healthy choice

Although slightly salty, pickles are light and refreshing snacks or an excellent accompaniment to a meal.

14) Pizza

Pizza is one of the most popular foods in the world, and it is also among the most recognized processed foods.

Generally speaking, most pizza we can order for delivery is far from being a nutritious option.

However, pizza can be made in many different ways, and the nutritional values depend on the specific ingredients used.

How is it processed?

Typical pizza usually involves making dough out of wheat flour, yeast, oil, salt, and seasonings.

The base is then topped with tomato paste, cheese, and various toppings.

Quick facts

Since pizza can vary so much from one pizza to another, there are no typical nutritional values or ingredients.

Why it can be a healthy choice

A deep-pan takeout pizza dripping with oil is far from healthy, but that doesn’t mean pizza can’t be reasonably nutritious.

For example, a homemade thin-base pizza, topped with tomato, cheese, meat/seafood, and vegetables provides a wide range of nutrients.

Additionally, pizza base does not have to be made from refined white flour – there are a variety of healthier alternatives.

15) Salsa

Salsa is a spicy tomato-based sauce/dip from Mexico, and it has a sweet, spicy, salty, and slightly sour taste.

How is it processed?

Salsa production typically involves peeling, washing, and then cooking a variety of ingredients, including tomatoes and chili peppers.

The exact method depends on what kind of salsa as there are several popular varieties.

Quick facts

  • Typical ingredients: Tomatoes, onions, garlic, chili pepper, cilantro, salt, pepper
  • Calories: 14.06 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 3.12 g
  • Fiber: 0.71 g
  • Sugars: 1.82 g
  • Fat: 0.12 g
  • Protein: 0.59 g

The above nutrition facts are for a 3.5 oz (100-gram) serving of salsa (32).

Why it is a healthy choice

Salsa is a rich source of vitamin C, and it is one of the best dietary sources of lycopene.

Lycopene is a carotenoid that may have several potential health benefits. This compound is also much more bioavailable in processed tomato products, such as salsa, than in whole tomatoes (33).

16) Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is a popular fermented cabbage dish that is particularly common in Germany.

How is it processed?

The processing of sauerkraut involves cutting cabbage into small shreds, covering the cabbage with salt, and then leaving it to ferment in a jar.

This lacto-fermentation process gives the sauerkraut a slightly sour taste.

Quick facts

  • Typical ingredients: Cabbage, salt
  • Calories: 19.0 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 4.28 g
  • Fiber: 2.9 g
  • Sugars: 1.78 g
  • Fat: 0.14 g
  • Protein: 0.91 g

These sauerkraut nutritional values are per 3.5 oz (100-gram) serving (34).

Why it is a healthy choice

Sauerkraut is an excellent source of vitamin C, fiber, and potentially probiotics.

It is also a tasty condiment and works well as a side dish for meat-based dishes.

However, it is worth noting that many commercial varieties of sauerkraut are pasteurized. This procedure kills any probiotic bacteria present.

A recent small (pilot) interventional study suggested that sauerkraut intake may improve symptoms of IBS. However, more extensive and better-powered studies are necessary to confirm this potential benefit (35).

17) Stock

Stock (or bone broth) is a liquid used for cooking soups and stews.

Generally speaking, it is usually made from boiling bones (mainly chicken and beef) or from vegetables.

Using stock in cooking helps to enhance the flavor and thickness of many different dishes.

How is it processed?

Taking chicken stock as an example, bones from a chicken are left to simmer for an extended period.

During this time, collagen is released into the water.

Quick facts (chicken stock)

  • Typical ingredients: Chicken bones, vegetables, water, seasonings
  • Calories: 86.4 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 8.47 g
  • Fiber: 0 g
  • Sugars: 3.79 g
  • Fat: 2.88 g
  • Protein: 6.05 g

The above nutritional data is based on one cup (240-gram) of chicken stock (36).

Why it is a healthy choice

Stock is not a significant source of vitamins or minerals.

However, it is low in calories, and it adds a lot of flavor to food.

Additionally, research demonstrates that bone broth intake increases blood levels of glycine. Although glycine is a non-essential amino acid, meaning that we don’t need to get it from our diet, research suggests higher dietary intake may have some interesting health-protective properties (37, 38).

18) Tofu

Tofu is a traditional East Asian food made by coagulating soy milk into curds.

Although very popular in Japan, tofu originated in China hundreds of years ago (39).

Generally speaking, tofu is often used as a meat substitute due to its high protein content.

How is it processed?

Tofu production first involves soaking and grinding soybeans to make soy milk.

Next, the milk is stirred while mixing in coagulants to thicken the mixture. These coagulants may include enzymes or edible acids, such as acetic acid.

The solidified tofu is then pressed to give it a firmer texture (40).

Quick facts

  • Typical ingredients: Soy milk, enzyme/acid coagulants
  • Calories: 76.0 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 1.87 g
  • Fiber: 0.3 g
  • Sugars: 0.62 g
  • Fat: 4.78 g
  • Protein: 8.08 g

This nutrition profile refers to a 3.5 oz (100-gram) serving of tofu (41).

Why it is a healthy choice

Tofu is a great source of protein, particularly for vegetarians and vegans.

Additionally, it is a rich source of calcium, copper, manganese, and selenium.

19) Yogurt

Yogurt is one of the best examples of healthy, processed food.

This dairy product is famous around the world and comes in a wide range of different varieties, such as Greek yogurt and Skyr.

How is it processed?

The production process of yogurt involves heating and then cooling milk to denature its proteins, and then adding a lactic acid starter culture to start the fermentation process (42).

Quick facts

  • Typical ingredients: Milk, starter culture
  • Calories: 138.0 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 10.6 g
  • Fiber: 0 g
  • Sugars: 10.6 g
  • Fat: 7.38 g
  • Protein: 7.88 g

These nutritional values are per 8 oz (227-gram) container (43).

Why it is a healthy choice

Yogurt provides substantial amounts of protein, B vitamins, calcium, and potentially beneficial probiotic bacteria.

Furthermore, existing systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials demonstrate that yogurt consumption is associated with neutral or favorable effects on chronic disease risk markers (44, 45, 46).

20) Whey Protein

Finally, whey protein is another excellent example of processed food that provides benefits.

Whey is one of the richest dietary sources of protein, and it is particularly popular as a supplement for athletes to increase their protein intake.

How is it processed?

Whey is a by-product of the manufacture of cheese.

Production involves isolating and then drying the liquid whey leftover from producing cheese (47).

This whey powder can then be diluted in water or other liquids.

It is worth noting that pure whey protein powder contains no additional ingredients. However, some whey products may include sweeteners, flavorings, and even sources of fat and carbohydrates in ‘weight gain’ products.

Quick facts

  • Typical ingredients: Whey concentrate
  • Calories: 113.0 kcal
  • Carbohydrate: 2.0 g
  • Fiber: 0.9 g
  • Sugars: 0 g
  • Fat: 0.5 g
  • Protein: 25.0 g

The above nutritional data is for a 32-gram serving of whey protein concentrate (48).

Why it is a healthy choice

Whey is a quick, convenient, and affordable source of high-quality protein.

Additionally, systematic reviews on whey protein consumption suggest that it can have beneficial effects on body composition and strength, especially in combination with a proper diet and resistance training (49, 50, 51).

Final Thoughts

While it is true that healthy whole foods are usually the best option, foods that have undergone processing aren’t necessarily bad options.

As shown throughout this article, there are numerous examples of processed foods that are rich in nutrients and relatively healthy.

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