10 of the Best (and Worst) Processed Foods at the Grocery Store

Very few people have the time, energy, and patience required to make all their meals completely from scratch. To fill in the gaps, we reach for processed foods at the supermarket. While this can often be a huge misstep, not every packaged item on the shelves is so sinful. Plenty of partially prepared foods are completely nutritious — you just have to know which ones to choose. We’re highlighting five of the best and five of the worst packaged foods to help you navigate the aisles with ease.

1. Best: Canned fish

canned tuna is one of several processed foods that are good for you

Tuna salad made with canned tuna is a good choice. | iStock.com

Fatty fish are among of the best choices for loading up on omega-3 fatty acids. Most folks are interested in these fats for heart health, but a good amount of research has found regular fish consumption is linked to an overall reduced risk of death. Fresh fish doesn’t hold well, though, so it can be difficult to get your fill if you’re not headed to the market every few days. The good news here is salmon, tuna, and sardines, all rich in omega-3s, are also available in shelf-stable cans. Because the seafood comes already cooked, you’ll also speed your way to a meal that much faster.

2. Best: Whole-wheat bread and pasta

whole-grain bread slices with blades of wheat

Whole-grain bread is the way to go. | iStock.com

Most of us don’t get close to consuming enough fiber on a daily basis, which can lead to weight gain and other health problems. Whole grains like brown rice and barley are some of the best foods to get your fill, but most of them take a lot of time to prepare. Fortunately, you can get all the goodness of these fiber-filled foods without the long cook time if you opt for whole-wheat breads and pastas. According to Vegetarian Times, you’ll also score more B vitamins, zinc, and magnesium.

3. Best: Fortified milk

glass of milk next to a glass jug

Milk contains vital nutrients. | iStock.com

When you think about it, all commercial milk is processed. In order for it to get the safe seal of approval, it has to be pasteurized. The drink is already healthy on its own, with plenty of calcium and protein, and it gets even better once producers add vitamin D. A deficiency in this nutrient has been linked to everything from dementia to obesity, according to WebMD, and it’s common for folks to fall short on the amount they need. Consider one 2014 study that found children who drank non-cow’s milk, which isn’t typically fortified, were more likely to have inadequate vitamin D levels.

4. Best: Canned beans

bowl of tomato and black bean soup

Try making black bean soup out of canned beans. | iStock.com

Whether you’re looking to eat more meat-free meals or just need an easy way to make food prep go faster, canned beans are a stellar supermarket buy. A ½-cup serving contains 109 calories, more than 7 grams of protein, nearly no fat, and more than 8 grams of fiber. They can be pretty high in sodium, though, so make sure to thoroughly rinse canned beans before using. Also, keep your eye out for low-sodium versions.

5. Best: Frozen fruits and vegetables

close-up of a bowl of frozen peas

Frozen peas are a great alternative to fresh. | iStock.com

The frozen foods aisle is usually the spot where shoppers load up on pizza and microwave entrées, but it’s also home to a huge variety of frozen produce. These packaged fruits and veggies are great to have on hand for days when you don’t have time to pick up something fresh at the store, and they’re also just as healthy. The Frozen Food Foundation partnered with the University of California-Davis in 2014 to conduct a study on the nutrient values of fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables. They found the frosty foods tended to have nutrient levels nearly as good, and in some cases better, than fresh ones.

6. Worst: Juice drinks

cocktail or juice drink with oranges

Skip this orange juice drink. | iStock.com

Now for the bad, starting with juice drinks. While 100% juice can find its way into a healthy diet, provided you’re sticking to a reasonable portion, packaged drinks, blends, and cocktails are usually about as healthy as candy. Let’s use Sunny Delight as an example. According to Foodfacts.com this tropical-tasting drink lists water and high-fructose corn syrup as its top two ingredients while the actual fruit comes in just tiny portions of concentrates. This leads to a whopping 19 grams of sugar per portion.

7. Worst: Boxed noodle meals

orange bowl with a block of instant ramen noodles

Instant ramen noodles should be left in the college dorm room. | iStock.com

This category includes boxed macaroni and cheese as well as instant ramen. Though these packaged eats are inexpensive and quick, they’re not doing your diet any favors. Both Nissan Top Ramen and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese contain 30% or more of your daily recommended sodium intake, and that’s if you stick to the portion size. Since many of us down the entire package, you can easily go way overboard. With little else aside from simple carbohydrates, you’re better off skipping these noodles.

8. Worst: Processed meats

Hot Dogs in buns

Skip this pile of hot dogs. | iStock.com

Some people say they would sooner die than give up their favorites foods. If you find yourself feeling this way about breakfast sausage, hot dogs, bacon, and deli meats, you might want to change your tune. Studies on the effects of processed meat are numerous, and the results are not good. For example, one 2013 study found diets high in processed meat were linked to an increased risk of mortality from all causes, but especially due to cancer and cardiovascular disease.

9. Worst: Frozen, deep-fried foods

Crispy chicken nuggets

Chicken nuggets are much healthier when baked and made from scratch. | iStock.com

Though restaurants are usually seen as the bad guys when it comes to fried foods, the frozen foods section at the grocery store can be just as dangerous. Those crispy fries, breaded fish fillets, and chicken nuggets might get the oven treatment in your kitchen, but these foods were fried prior to packaging. Eat This, Not That! highlighted some of the worst chicken nuggets. Even ones trying to feign health benefits by touting they use only breast meat can pack up to 13 grams of fat per serving.

10. Worst: Packaged cakes and cookies

Cookie Sandwiches filled with chocolate ice cream

Chocolate chip sandwich cookies are delicious, but bad for you. | iStock.com

No one thinks a diet loaded with cookies and pastries is healthy, yet few realize just how much damage these eats can do. A seemingly harmless snack of three Oreos will set you back 160 calories, 7 grams of fat, and 14 grams of sugar. And because they have virtually no fiber or protein to keep you full, it’s easy to down several servings. When hunger strikes, you’re much better off reaching for a handful of almonds.

Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec