Packaged foods often cop a bad rap — they’re considered processed and inferior nutritionally to foods purchased in the fresh section of supermarkets.
While you can’t go past fresh fruits and veg, nuts, seeds and lean protein to build a strong foundation for good nutrition, the truth is that there are also plenty of packaged foods that tick most, if not all, of the nutritional boxes we are looking for. Plus packaged foods can save much time and money, ultimately making good nutrition a little easier for busy people.
For those interested in exploring this option, there is an easy way to identify whether a packaged food is a healthy option.
How to weed out the packaged duds
While nutritional science can be extremely confusing, and nutritional panels, health star ratings, GI symbols and health claims make it ever more challenging to decipher whether or not a packaged food is healthy, the easiest way to instantly gauge whether you have a healthy choice in your hands is to take a quick scan of the ingredient list.
Generally speaking, the more processed a food is, the longer the ingredient list will be.
On the other hand, foods that are minimally processed if at all, such as oats, brown rice or legumes, will have little other on their ingredient list than the food itself.
Scan to see if you recognise all the ingredients listed as whole foods with few if any other added flavours, colours, preservatives and additives. If you find the ingredient list is filled with a random mix of ingredients with unusual names such as emulsifiers, raising agents, acidity regulators and humectants, you are likely looking at a relatively processed food.
If the list features a number of relatively unhealthy ingredients such as vegetable oil, sugar in various forms, including glucose syrup, maize starch and dextrin just to name a few, again it is a pretty strong indication the food is heavily processed and not the best option nutritionally.
And based on this, here are the packaged foods you can feel confident adding to your grocery shop each week.
The great thing about frozen vegetables is that they are snap frozen, which means that they retain the exact nutritional properties they had when they were harvested. A quick scan of the ingredient list of frozen veg is a dead giveaway, and will pleasantly reveal that the packs contain just the vegetables. At a reasonably low price point, and one that avoids the seasonal fluctuations in prices of fresh produce, you cannot go past frozen veggies for ease, availability and budget purposes. Just be sure to not overcook them so you retain as much nutrition as possible.
Lentils, kidney beans, bortolli beans, black beans, chickpeas just to name a few — the fibre and protein rich superfoods that few Aussies eat anywhere near enough of. Fresh beans can be hard to come by, relatively expensive and take much time to peel, soak and prepare for cooking. On the other hand, canned beans which contain the legumes along with a little salt are a packaged food that will making eating more beans each week a whole lot easier.
While tinned fish will contain salt to help preserve it, and some varieties may also contain oil and or flavours, in general tinned fish is one packaged food there is no need to feel any guilt enjoying. And don’t forget to seek out sustainably-fished options where possible.
Not often considered as a ‘core’ healthy food, wholegrain crackers, including corn and brown rice cakes, rye crackers and many grainy crackers, are made from little other than the grain and a little water and salt.
A quick scan of an ingredient list will be all you need to determine how few ingredients your favourite cracker is made from and in a number of cases you will be left with a low-calorie, nutrient-dense wholegrain cracker or cake that you can be 100 per cent comfortable to enjoy as part of your staple diet.
There are many spreads available in supermarkets made from processed vegetable oils with ingredient lists a mile long. On the other hand, there is a growing range of nut spreads that contain just the nuts.
It would take much time, effort and money to make the equivalent nut spread yourself, plus you would be faced with the need to keep it fresh. On the other hand, you can now find a range of 100 per cent nut spreads for a fraction of the cost of fresh nuts. A win-win and a better spread option nutritionally than both butter and margarine.
Author Susie Burrell is a leading Australian dietitian and nutritionist, founder of Shape Me, co-host of The Nutrition Couch podcast and prominent media spokesperson, with regular appearances in both print and television media commenting on all areas of diet, weight loss and nutrition.