Packaged foods get a bad reputation, and most times, that reputation is well-deserved. Most are high in sugar and unhealthy oils. Plus, they’re seasoned with too much salt and artificial flavorings, but people buy them because they’re quick and convenient. However, not all packaged foods are bad for you. The ones to avoid are ultra-processed fare with a long list of ingredients.
What are ultra-processed foods? They’re foods that are heavily altered during manufacturing to the point they no longer resemble whole food. Processing removes fiber and essential nutrients that your body needs and often gets too little of, particularly fiber. That’s the main reason we eat food, for the nutrients it offers. With so many shortcomings, ultra-processed packaged foods shouldn’t make up the bulk of your diet.
Here’s the good news! Not everything that comes in a package is unhealthy. In fact, there are some nutrient-rich foods you can buy in a package, and some are quite affordable. Let’s look at packaged products that will supply your body with nutrients, not spike your blood sugar, and don’t cost a fortune.
Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are nutrient-dense and fiber-rich, but many people think they’re expensive. If that’s the case, head over to the frozen food section. Here you will find frozen fruits and veggies on sale and they have the added benefit of having a long shelf-life. That might resonate with you if you’ve ever had a bag of fresh produce go bad on you.
Frozen fruits and vegetables often go on sale too. When you catch a sale, stock up as you can store frozen vegetables and fruits for several months in the freezer. That’s better than rotten veggies in the vegetable crisper!
You might have heard that frozen vegetables and fruits aren’t as nutritious. Not true! Frozen produce is often as nutrient-dense or more so than fresh since they’re frozen just after harvest, and freezing locks in their nutrients. In contrast, fresh produce travels long distances and sits on store shelves, all the while losing nutrients like vitamin C.
Frozen vegetables are a breeze to prepare too since someone else has already done the cutting and chopping for you. You can even prepare them in a microwave if you’re time-strapped and still get your five-a-day.
Legumes, including lentils and beans, are little nutrient-dense orbs that also supply protein and fiber. You can buy pre-packaged dried ones or buy them from bulk bins for as little as 10 cents for a quarter cup and prepare them in a slow cooker. It’s a hands-off way to get them on the table.
Why should you add legumes to your next meal? Beans of all types and lentils are rich in B-vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and they’re one of the best plant-based sources of protein. What you might not know is that beans are also rich in antioxidants with black beans and small red beans being especially antioxidant-rich. Plus, research links a diet high in beans with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer. They’re also blood-sugar friendly because of their high fiber content.
Here’s a tip: Soak beans and lentils for at least 8 hours and discard the water before cooking them. Doing this removes some of the non-digestible carbohydrates that cause flatulence. Then cook them in a slow cooker. You can find tons of recipes online that use beans and lentils in scrumptious ways.
Containers of low-sugar yogurt are reasonable in price and pack a lot of nutrition into a small container. Skip the flavored versions that are often high in sugar. Instead, choose plain yogurt and add thawed frozen fruit to the yogurt for flavor and a touch of natural sweetness.
What’s to love about yogurt? For a reasonable price, you get protein, calcium B-vitamins, and gut-friendly bacteria called probiotics. Some studies show that certain probiotic bacteria, particularly Bifidobacteria, reduce digestive symptoms for people who have conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, and may help healthy people who suffer from constipation.
Greek yogurt is higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates than standard yogurt but also contains less calcium. It may also cost more, but you can always scarf up a few containers when they’re on sale. With so many brands to choose from, shop around, and look for brands that are on sale. If you don’t consume dairy, look for plant-based yogurt made from coconut milk, almond milk, or oat milk. Like their dairy counterparts, they contain probiotics.
Although not a tree nut, peanuts have similar benefits to tree nuts, especially when it comes to heart health, and they’re higher in protein than tree nuts. Although you can’t go wrong eating tree nuts, they’re more expensive than the more common peanut, which is available in packages or in bulk. Peanuts tastily combine protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Long known to be heart healthy, a 2014 study found that for people with diabetes, eating 46 grams of peanuts daily was linked with better heart health.
Sardines are an excellent source of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, a type of fatty acid with anti-inflammatory benefits. Some research suggests that consuming more long-chain omega-3s may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease by reducing triglycerides and reigning in inflammation. They’re also an excellent source of protein. When you consider the benefits, sardines are a bargain. If you buy them on sale, you can get them for as little as a dollar or two per container.
The Bottom Line
Eating healthy doesn’t have to mean paying a fortune or giving up all packaged foods. Now you have five alternatives that come in a package but won’t break the bank.
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- Nutr J. 2014; 13: 10.Published online 2014 Jan 22. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-13-10.
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