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Can packaged foods be healthy? A dietitian breaks down the ingredients

These are some good and bad ingredients to look out for in pre-packaged snacks and meals.

The first processed frozen meals rolled off the conveyor belt in the early 50s and landed on the American dinner table. For the first time, a meal could be provided to the family with no prep at all, and without washing a single dinner plate. Soon, frozen meals started providing dessert, as well.

The inconvenience of scratch-cooking everything from meals to snacks was over. What was born, instead, was the ultra-processed food. All this convenience came at a cost, of course. In order to keep these foods fresh, they included additives, preservatives and, often, a boatload of sodium and sugar.

This didn’t help American health. A study published in the journal Nutrients in 2019 estimated that 80% of Americans' total calorie consumption came from packaged food and beverage products. The study also found these foods were often highly processed and abundant in saturated fats, sugar, sodium, and excess calories — components that could increase the risk for obesity, chronic disease and even early death.

Ultra-processed foods contributed to more than 90% of the sugar people ate, according to another study in 2016, which is likely a factor in the staggering rates of type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease. These kinds of foods can also make it more difficult to control portion size and to eat the recommended daily amounts of fruits and vegetables.

Health was not historically the goal of most packaged foods. Now, many smaller companies and divisions within larger ones market packaged foods more focused on nutrition. The range of "healthy" options is vast and it can be confusing to the average consumer. But there are some packaged foods that can be better.

Young Woman Groceries Shopping In Local Supermarket.
How to check the labels to see if your packaged food is healthy.Getty Images stock

How to identify a healthier packaged food

With so much variety in packaged, processed food, how can consumers determine what is actually good for them and what simply has good marketing? Here are some ways to identify better options.

Choose options with 5 or fewer ingredients

The more ingredients in a food product, the more likely it won’t be good news for health. Aim for five or fewer ingredients in any packaged food — and the fewer, the better! For example, a bag of chips with just corn, salt and oil will be a much better option than one with a long ingredient list.

Group of labels showing nutrition facts.
Search the labels for the number of ingredients and the amount of added sugar and sodium.Getty Images stock

Be wary of smoke-and-mirrors marketing

Imagine walking into the grocery store tomorrow, only to find sensational claims stuck to apples. Everyone knows an apple is healthy, without any claims plastered on the skin. The more a product tries to sell the idea that it’s good for health, the more likely that it isn’t.

Don’t let this kind of smoke-and-mirrors marketing cloud judgment. Be wary of claims such as “made with whole grains,” “made with real fruit” or even the use of the word “healthy” or “natural” — there's no scientific support for those claims and anyone can make them.

Avoid ingredients that aren't in the pantry

While many packaged food options today contain real food, it’s not the norm.

Even some packaged foods marketed as healthy contain large amounts of additives like artificial food coloring, gums, MSG, nitrates and nitrites, added sugars (real or artificial) and even BHA and BHT.

Use fiber content as a guide

Want to identify a low-nutrient packaged food? It’s written all over the fiber. The sources of fiber are plants, including whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Because they aren't digested easily, they create a feeling of fullness. Fiber can also assist with lowering cholesterol, as well as the risk for diseases like colon cancer. Aim for 3 grams or more per serving.

Foods with higher fiber content are often healthier options.
Foods with higher fiber content are often healthier options.Shutterstock

Look for whole foods, not variations of whole foods

One of the greatest examples of junk food disguised as healthy food is vegetable chips. While not all chips are bad, many on the market are simply potato chips with some vegetable powder added in. No real vegetables mean the bag should be kept on the shelf and out of the cart. Look for variations that have actual fruit or vegetables listed in the ingredient list.

Processed packaged foods aren’t going away anytime soon and some of them can actually deliver nutrients when cooking is not an option. Use this information to help decipher the healthy and not-so-much and it can be possible to save time and cooking hassle, without sacrificing health.

Kristin Kirkpatrick is the lead dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Wellness & Preventive Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. She is a best-selling author and an award winning dietitian.