While fresh is best when it comes to food, there is surely a role in these busy times for a well-stocked pantry. But there can be a lot of confusion about the health benefits of many packaged items. Some of these healthier choices might surprise you!
The next time you're in the grocery store, consult this list and choose the healthiest options for those go-to pantry items.
PICK: Regular peanut butter
SKIP: Reduced fat peanut butter. Reduced fat peanut butter is only about 20 calories less than regular peanut butter — two tablespoons has 170 calories, instead of 190. The reduced-fat version has 4 fewer grams of fat (not a big difference), but also added sugars and other fillers to boost the flavor. And the taste of the reduced-fat version is quite different from the original.
PICK: Air-popped popcorn
SKIP: Vegetable chips. Most vegetable chips are not a swap for a serving of vegetables. While they can include colorful vegetables, they are not nutrient-rich. Corn is also a vegetable, and a 100-calorie serving has 4 grams of fiber — and that’s a 4-cup serving. A large handful of vegetable chips also has about 100 calories. And all that air puffing up the corn provides more volume to keep you fuller longer.
PICK: 2 percent milk
SKIP: 100 percent fruit juice. For optimal nutrients, it’s best to eat your fruit and not drink it —especially for a boost in fiber. An 8-ounce serving of milk or juice each contains about 120 calories; for the same calories, milk provides abundant calcium, vitamin D and protein. And the nutrients in milk are the same whether you choose non-fat milk. Shelf-stable milks are a great choice for lunchboxes.
PICK: Whole-wheat English muffin
SKIP: Multi-grain bagel. Whole-grain breads are part of a healthy diet, but stick with the English muffin with around 120 calories and 4-5 grams of fiber. You’ll get the same fiber in the bagel, but with about three times the amount of calories. Top it with an egg or spread with a tablespoon or two of peanut butter to boost the protein content.
PICK: Honey nut oat cereal
SKIP: Granola. Both cereals have added sugars, but one cup of granola has around a whopping 10 times more sugar per cup than the oat cereal, and nearly four times the calories.
Read the label carefully, as granolas can vary with fat and sugar content. And pay attention to the serving size. Granola most often lists the calories for 1/4 cup or 1/2 cup, more of a topping or add-on than as a complete bowl of cereal. That’s why a 1-cup serving of honey nut oat cereal weighs in at around 145 calories, and a 1/2-cup of granola is around 225 calories.
PICK: Powdered sugar
SKIP: Canned frosting. It might be hard to believe that 1 tablespoon of frosting (or icing, depending on where you live) has 70 calories, while the same amount of powdered sugar has only 30 calories. Frosting is a combination of sugar and fat — tasty, but calorie dense. Instead of frosting, dust the top of cookies, cakes or cupcakes with powdered sugar. You’ll cut way back on calories and fat, and still satisfy your sweet tooth.
PICK: Corn oil
SKIP: Coconut oil. All oils have 120 calories per tablespoon and 14 grams of fat. But coconut oil is 85 percent saturated fat — the artery clogging type of fat. And it’s solid at room temperature, typical for saturated fats. Corn oil is a healthy vegetable oil, with only a small amount of saturated fat (around 13 percent). Stick with vegetables oils of all types for most uses. Limit the use of coconut oil, and be mindful of portions in foods containing it.
PICK: Red wine vinaigrette
SKIP: Fat-free ranch dressing. Fat-free doesn’t mean calorie-free, and while there is around 25 calories per tablespoon in fat-free ranch dressing, there are also multiple additives, thickeners and stabilizers to provide a taste similar to the real thing but with far fewer calories. Red wine vinaigrette has only about 20 more calories per tablespoon — and the oil base provides greater taste and satisfaction when eating a salad. Creamy dressings are generally always higher in calories than clear. But if you want to cut the calories in half for your favorite bottled ranch dressing, add one part buttermilk for one part dressing.
Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD is NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor. Follower her on Twitter.