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Is There a Least Bad Processed Food?

Sure! In fact, some processed foods are the healthiest foods we have.

Processed foods get a bad rap, and sometimes they deserve it. “Eating processed foods sets up an addictive cycle,” says hypnotist Lori Hammond, who specializes in weight loss. “Processed grains and sugar create the same chemical response as cocaine in the body and keep you wanting more.”

But can processed food be healthy? Does a bear shit in the woods?

By definition, the vast majority of foods we consume, even those we think of as whole and natural, undergo some amount of processing. Baby carrots, bagged salads, pasteurized milk — they all go through some sort of transformation at the hands of humans and machines, which often makes them cleaner and safer to eat. 

In fact, while processed foods may seem like a modern phenomenon, humans began the, um, process of processing foods 1.8 million years ago, when we first learned how to roast meat, making it easier to digest. Likewise, both bread and beer, which humans have been consuming for millennia, require loads of processing.

You could even argue that, while many processed foods are unhealthy and can easily be overloaded with sugar and salt, just as many make us healthier. Take beans, for instance: They typically require overnight soaking and hours of cooking, a lengthy process that discourages many people from eating them. Canned beans, however, provide a quick-and-easy means of consuming these incredibly healthy legumes, especially if you reach for low-sodium varieties. Similarly, bagged, washed and already-sliced vegetables (as well as frozen vegetables) have likely led to an increase in our overall consumption of vegetables, simply because they take the work out of preparing and eating them. 

These are all processed foods!

None of this means that Strawberry Pop-Tarts are as healthy as a carton of strawberries. What it does mean, though, is that processed foods can be healthy. Therefore, it would be wise to judge a food by things like its nutritional value and how much sugar and salt it contains, rather than by how processed it is. That said, as a general rule, foods with fewer ingredients tend to be healthier.

Healthy Processed Foods List

As proof that processed foods can be healthy, here are just a few examples — but probably not the kind you were hoping for.

Yogurt: Yogurt is processed as hell, bro, but it can be packed with protein, probiotics that aid your gut and a decent spattering of vitamins and minerals.

Tomato sauce: Pre-made tomato sauce can contain more sugar and salt than the fresh stuff, but there are healthy options out there, and the tomatoes in these sauces contain high levels of cancer-fighting lycopene.

Milk: If squeezing milk out of nuts isn’t processing, punch me in the head and call me silly. But despite being highly processed, milk alternatives can be all kinds of healthy.

Cereal: There are good cereals, and there are bad cereals, but they’re pretty much all processed. If you can find yourself a bran cereal without too much added sugar, it can be totally healthy, even when eaten on a daily basis.

Frozen Pizza: If anything proves that processing has little to do with how healthy a food can be, it’s frozen pizza: Some are basically equivalent to drinking Chernobyl juice, and others are actually pretty damn healthy, covered in vegetables without many other devious ingredients.

In the end, processed foods can totally be healthy foods. Again, frozen vegetables are processed, but they’re still vegetables. So rather than worrying about how processed a food is, get in the habit of checking nutrition labels while you shop. It may take a little extra time, but your lifespan will pay you back with interest.