It’s time to set the record straight on processed food. I think it bears the lion’s share of the blame for obesity and its attendant diseases, because processing — and only processing — enables the cheap, nutrient-challenged, ubiquitous foods that are specifically designed to be overeaten.
But “it’s processed” isn’t a reasonable objection to any particular food. It depends on how it’s processed.
Processing is a tool, and, like any tool, it can be used for good or for evil. If I have a hammer, I can use it to fix my neighbor’s roof. Or I can kill his dog. Likewise food processing (also genetic modification).
When processing is used, for example, to extend shelf life, add nutrition or kill pathogens, that’s all good. Also when plants are processed into convincing meat substitutes, decreasing (eventually) our beef consumption and the carbon that goes with it. Plant burgers aren’t significantly better for you than beef, but their processed-ness has nothing to do with it.
I am fully persuaded that the best way to eat a healthful diet is to cook with whole or whole-ish ingredients. But I am also fully persuaded that we’re not going back to a world where that’s the norm. For too many people, too much of the time, cooking is a chore.
If you walk through a supermarket, you’ll find plenty of those cheap, nutrient-challenged, processed foods designed to be irresistible. But you’ll also find processed foods that are convenient, reasonably nutritious stand-ins.
To find them, I took Alice Lichtenstein shopping. She’s a professor at Tufts University and one of the most influential voices in the field. We went to two markets: a Stop & Shop and a Trader Joe’s.
Most of our picks are veg- and grain-heavy. This isn’t because meat is bad; it’s because meat doesn’t lend itself to shelf-stable products as easily as, say, lentils. By all means, add shrimp or chicken or eggs or beef (or plant burgers) to some of these to turn them into a meal.
I’m also not considering flavor. People’s tastes are too personal for that. I’m also not dealing with environmental impact or animal welfare, although I think those are hugely important.
We didn’t go in with hard-and-fast criteria, but we did look for high fiber content — an indication of high veg content — and ingredient lists that begin with good things. Sodium content came up over and over; it tends to be high. Still, we found some decent picks.
Look for the ones with whole grains at the top of the ingredient list, plenty of fiber and no more than a couple of grams of sugar per serving. It’s also useful to know the difference between granola (which is baked, usually with added fat and sugar) and muesli (unbaked, usually without added fat and sugar). If your choices are limited, default to Cheerios. There’s a reason it’s the top-selling cereal in the country. It’s mostly oats, with very little sodium, 140 milligrams, and only one gram of sugar per 100-calorie, one-cup serving. But don’t get fooled by the brand extensions.
The No. 2 U.S. cereal is Honey Nut Cheerios, and it’s got more calories, less fiber, 2 grams, and much more sugar, 9 grams. “Honey” is right there in the name, so you expect more sugar, but you also get more in Multi Grain Cheerios, and every other Cheerios version out there. Default to the original.
Rotisserie chicken falls into a ready-to-eat category that doesn’t require a nutrition facts panel, but the ingredients are on the label, so you can see whether the seasoning includes salt and sugar. It often does. But it’s an inexpensive, wildly popular, low-effort main dish.
There’s marinara, which, on a whole-grain pasta, is a perfectly fine meal. The big problem with jarred red sauce is sodium; the lowest level we found was in Cucina Antica Tomato Basil, with 220 milligrams in a half-cup serving. By contrast, Prego’s low-sodium version of its traditional sauce had 360 milligrams. If you’re not worried about sodium, you have many more options. But there are other choices in other aisles, such as Patak’s Simmer Sauces. They’re basically curry bases, and they come in several flavors — butter chicken, rogan josh, korma, mango and others — and various heat levels. The main ingredients, after water, are onion and tomato, and they’ve all got a long list of spices. They’re not super nutritious, and they, too, have a fair amount of salt, but they’re a way to turn things that are super nutritious, like plain old vegetables, into a meal. Add some of that rotisserie chicken, and dinner’s on the table.
If I haven’t already persuaded you of the many fine qualities of frozen vegetables — convenience, cost, less food waste than fresh — I’ll take another shot at it. If you have some kind of frozen green — kale, collards, spinach — you can use it to bulk up a premade pasta sauce or soup. Some vegetables don’t freeze well, peppers and onions, for example, but many — such as peas and corn — are just fine. And fast. And cheap.
The frozen veg aisle also has some of most nutritious ready-to-cook dishes in the store. Birds Eye’s Steamfresh brand has mixes that include legumes and grains, and a sauce, all in one microwaveable bag. Green Giant sells its version as protein bowls. Alexia sells several kinds of side dishes based on riced squash or cauliflower.
If you’re looking for bona fide nutrition, soups are your friend. While many vegetables don’t fare well in food processing, legumes do. Beans, split peas, lentils and chickpeas are all soupable. You can get soups fresh, frozen, in shelf-stable cartons and just-add-water cups. Check out Tabatchnick soups, which are genuinely nutritious, come in low-sodium varieties and are made by a 100-year-old, family-owned company.
Bowls are typically a combination of grains, vegetables and often meat. Wildscape, a brand carried in Stop & Shop’s “natural” section, sells frozen bowls, with all the above, in appetizing combinations. The cilantro-lime chicken with charred corn salsa, red rice, black beans, riced cauliflower and avocado mojo verde has a substantial 11 grams of fiber and an ingredient list of things I certainly want to eat. The bowls are, however, expensive at $5.99, a bit high in sodium, 700 milligrams in the cilantro-lime chicken, and only enough for a light lunch. They run 330 to 450 calories. Annie Chun’s, a brand in the international aisle, has a Thai-style green curry with brown rice and red quinoa that’s got a bit less sodium, 660 milligrams, less fiber, 7 grams, and a slightly lower price tag, $4.69. Bowls vary a lot, so read labels.
Before there were bowls, there were rice mixes, and the rice section has options. For starters, if you’re in the habit of sneering at Minute Rice, stop. It’s just parboiled; they do some of the cooking so you do less of it. With brown rice, that’s the difference between 40 minutes and 10. But beyond plain rice, there are blends with other grains and legumes. Minute’s Multi-Grain Medley has quinoa, flaxseed and chia mixed in, with 8 grams of fiber per serving. Also in that aisle is Tasty Bite’s Brown Rice & Lentils, which is exactly what the label says, and it doesn’t even require cooking, just warming in the microwave. You could even add frozen kale and rotisserie chicken.
Trader Joe’s products
The market is a good source for reasonably healthful processed foods. In the refrigerated section, we found a lentil soup with ancient grains, a poke bowl and stuffed peppers. In the freezer, there was a riced cauliflower bowl, a shakshuka starter and vegetable burritos. Sodium levels are generally reasonable, as are prices.
After our shopping trips, Lichtenstein’s verdict was “I’m not impressed,” she said in an email. If this is what you eat every day, your diet is “boring and limited.” Her advice: “Keep shelf-stable (canned bean, canned tuna, pouches of brown rice, pasta), refrigerator-stable (salad dressing, sauces, cheese) and freezer-stable (precooked chicken strips, veggie burgers, frozen veggies) options.” That way, you can combine them into meals in a microwave or single pan on the stove. There were some interesting choices, but we definitely need more of them. We’ll only get them, though, if there’s demand. As always, we get the food system we demand.