How to Choose Healthy Packaged Foods

Longstanding nutrition advice tells us that we should stick to the perimeter of grocery stores (where the fresh food is) and avoid everything in the center aisles. For the most part, this is true – but there are some healthy packaged foods we can use to supplement our home cooking. Our culinary nutrition graduates around the world focus on teaching their communities how to cook simple meals, condiments and staples from scratch, along with tips and tricks like batch cooking or kitchen hacks to help you prepare meals quicker. Sometimes, though, in a busy work week it can be extra challenging to make meals and work lunches, which is where carefully curating healthy packaged foods comes into play.

Let’s talk about healthy packaged foods, what to look for and what to avoid in the supermarket aisles.

Healthy Packaged Foods: Label Sleuthing Tips

Unhealthy, highly processed foods far outweigh the options for healthy packaged foods. To ensure you’re selecting a product that is health-supportive and meets your nutrition goals, the first step is to start reading food labels. While conventional nutritionists tend to emphasize calories or grams of fat, culinary nutrition wisdom is about looking at the ingredient lists on products to determine what is actually in the food we’re eating and if those ingredients are beneficial to our health and wellness. Skip the nutrition facts panel and look at the ingredients instead.

Some things to avoid when buying packaged foods include:

  • Bisphenol A (BPA). If purchasing canned goods or foods in plastic, look for cans and packaging that is BPA-free because BPA is a known endocrine disruptor. If a package doesn’t specifically state it’s BPA-free, it’s probably not.
  • Artificial Food Dyes. Processing and packaging can suck the colour out of foods, and manufacturers add dyes to bring them back to life. These harmful additives are linked to cancer, hyperactivity, allergies and more.
  • Preservatives. There are many additives that preserve food and we tend to avoid sulphites, nitrites, sodium benzoate, BHA and BHT.
  • Canola And/Or Sunflower Oil. This is a common ingredient you’ll see on labels as canola oil is cheap, but it is also genetically modified and highly processed to the point where it is rancid. More on how to choose healthy cooking oils here.
  • Trans Fats/Hydrogenated Oils. Our bodies can’t actually recognize the chemical structure of trans fats, and this can lead to things like high cholesterol, heart disease and cancer. Look for ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated’ oils in ingredient lists to detect trans fats.
  • Refined Sugars. Sugars are addictive and can influence obesity, diabetes, mood disruption, hormone imbalances, cancer, cavities and cardiovascular disease. Sugar can mask itself in many names, including sucrose, glucose, fructose, corn syrup, maltodextrin and more – get a list of other names for sugar here.
  • Artificial Sweeteners. Promoted as a way to lose weight and balance blood sugar levels, artificial sweeteners have compromised our health, leading to weight gain, increasing our cancer risk, disrupting gut health, and damaging the liver, just to name a few. Skip aspartame, sucralose, sugar alcohols (xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol, etc.) and Acesulfame K.
  • Added Sugars. Sometimes sugar appears in places you wouldn’t expect, like tomato sauce, crackers, salad dressing or bread. Always check labels for added sugars.
  • Natural Flavours. Natural flavours is a broad term and they may be safe, or not. If you see natural flavours on a label, get in touch with the company to determine what they actually are.
  • MSG. This flavour enhancer is found in many processed foods and may cause neurotoxicity, headaches, obesity, liver damage, allergic reactions and reproductive issues.
  • Gluten and Dairy. As the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program is gluten-free and dairy-free, we avoid products that contain gluten and dairy.

When purchasing healthy packaged foods, look for:

  • Simple ingredient lists. A short ingredient list doesn’t always mean a product is healthy, but generally limited ingredients means that you’ll be consuming fewer preservatives and other ingredients mentioned above.
  • Whole ingredients. Look for whole, unprocessed ingredients. For example, look for whole, crushed, dried or chopped fruits and vegetables in packaged foods versus their powders, which have undergone far more processing and stripping of their nutrients.
  • BPA-Free. Look for this label on canned or plastic goods. Glass jars are also a good option to avoid BPA.
  • Non-GMO. Purchase packaged foods that aren’t made with genetically modified ingredients.
  • Organic. This ensures there will be no synthetic pesticides, GMOs and fewer heavy metals, plus organic farming is better for animals and the environment. Note: organic doesn’t always equal healthy – organic cookies are still cookies!
  • Wild. If purchasing animal products, such as canned fish, aim for wild options rather than farmed.
  • Low to moderate sodium. Salt is a very effective preservative, yet many packaged foods contain loads of white table salt, which is detrimental to our health. Look for healthy packaged foods that are low in sodium – you can always add better types of salt when you cook and serve your food.

Labels can definitely be confusing – more advice on how to avoid being fooled by the label here. You can find specific recommendations on what to look for in healthy packaged foods below!

Best Healthy Packaged Foods

Canned Fish

Sardines, salmon, anchovies and herring are some of our favourite anti-inflammatory, omega 3-rich fish. If you’re eating healthy on a budget, sardines are inexpensive and are fantastic in salads, on gluten-free toast or with roasted veggies.

What to Look For: Fish packed in water or olive oil and sea salt.
What to Avoid: Due to mercury concerns, we only have canned tuna as a very occasional treat.

Frozen Berries

Best Healthy Packaged Foods

Berries are flash frozen at the peak of freshness when they are picked and are rich in fibre, antioxidants, and immune-boosting Vitamin C.

What to Look For: Wild berries, organic berries or berries that contain fewer pesticides.
What to Avoid: Most frozen berries or berry mixes should only contain berries – there really shouldn’t be any preservatives.

Plain Frozen Vegetables

Similar to fruits, frozen vegetables are frozen when they are fresh and are wonderful tossed into soups, dinner bowls and even smoothies.

What to Look For: Non-GMO vegetables with single ingredients – eg. carrots, or carrots, peas and broccoli if you are buying a vegetable medley. If you are being selective about organics, reference the dirty dozen list to know which organic vegetables to purchase. You can also find pre-shredded frozen cauliflower rice or spiralized veggie noodles these days; there isn’t anything wrong with these options but they will be much more expensive.
What to Avoid: Veggies that have been pre-roasted and then frozen (they don’t taste great).

Nuts and Seeds

Whether buying in bulk or in small packages, nuts and seeds are wonderful plant-based sources of protein and are rich in nutritious fats, vitamins and fibre.

What to Look For: Raw, organic or unsalted.
What to Avoid: Roasted nuts, as the fats in nuts and seeds can go rancid when exposed to heat, light and air. It’s better to toast or roast them yourself. Also avoid any unhealthy cooking oils, which can be added to roasted nuts.

Gluten-Free Grains

How to cook grains

Plain gluten-free grains such a rice, wild rice, quinoa, millet, sorghum, teff and amaranth are perfect for side dishes, burritos, using in stir-fries or other one-pot meals, or to bulk up veggie burgers.

What to Look For: Single ingredient grains.
What to Avoid: Packaged rice with seasoning packets, as these often contain natural flavours, excess sodium, unhealthy oils, and MSG.

Oats

A morning staple, oats can be used to make both sweet and savory oatmeal, baked oatmeal, granola and gluten-free baked goodies.

What to Look For: Whole oats, either steel cut, quick cooking or rolled.
What to Avoid: Most instant oatmeal packets, though some are better than others. Watch out for natural flavours, colours and preservatives. If you are gluten-intolerant or are celiac, purchase certified gluten-free oats.

Gluten-Free Pasta

Gluten-free pasta is an excellent pantry staple – when cooking with it, we like to use less pasta and load it up with nutrient-dense veggies.

What to Look For: There are many varieties and shapes of gluten-free pasta, including those made with rice, quinoa, corn, chickpeas, black beans, lentils and more. Any of these are good options depending on your preference. Most pastas should be made from a grain/bean and water.
What to Avoid: Mono and diglycerides, which contain trans fats.

Dried Fruit

Rich in fibre and great for digestion, dried fruits add oomph and flavour to baked goods, smoothie bowls, or can be used as a natural sweetener.

What to Look For: Single ingredient dried fruit, or dried fruit sweetened with applesauce.
What to Avoid: Sulphites, flour, canola and/or sunflower oil (the former prevents discolouration, the latter prevents the fruit from sticking together), and added sugars.

Beans – Canned and Dried

Healthy Packaged Foods

Beans and legumes are a wonderful way to add more fibre, vitamins and protein to your diet and they can be added to a wide range of dishes.

What to Look For: If purchasing cooked beans, choose BPA-free containers and check labels for sodium levels. If buying dried, the only thing listed should be the specific bean or legume in the package.
What to Avoid: Refried or baked beans that contain added unhealthy cooking oils, preservatives and refined sugars.

Tomatoes and Tomato Paste

Tomatoes are a good source of cancer-preventative lycopene and are a versatile kitchen ingredient, great in pasta sauce, on pizza, in salsa and other condiments, soups, or stews. Tomato paste adds a rich flavour and thickens up the texture of your dishes.

What to Look For: Tomatoes or tomato paste in BPA-free cans or glass jars.
What to Avoid: Canned tomatoes with extra seasonings such as yeast extract (MSG) or natural flavours.

Dark Chocolate

When made with quality ingredients, chocolate can be a nutritious addition to your diet. It’s one of our favourite healthy packaged foods!

What to Look For: Optimally, organic and fair-trade chocolate. If that isn’t available, aim for the darkest chocolate you can find – the darker it is, the less sugar it will have.
What to Avoid: Milk chocolate, dark chocolate with milk ingredients, artificial flavours, soy lecithin, artificial colours/food dyes.

Trail Mix

Often a combination of nuts, seeds, dried fruit and chocolate, trail mixes make a great snack when you’re on the go.

What to Look For: Plain trail mixes with fruit and nuts/seeds – raw nuts/seeds if you can, organic, unsalted.
What to Avoid: Canola oil, soybean oil, sulphites, hydrogenated oils, milk ingredients or modified ingredients, sugar, icing sugar, corn syrup, or other refined sugars, natural flavours, artificial colours, shellac. If you have a peanut allergy, watch for peanuts.

Nut/Seed Butters

How to Make Nut and Seed Butter

Aside from being supremely tasty, nut and seed butters are high in protein, essential fats, antioxidants and fibre. If you’d like to learn more about them and dip your toes into making your own, grab our guide to making and flavouring nut and seed butters at home.

What to Look For: Plain nut and seed butters with only the nut/seed, salted or unsalted.
What to Avoid: Hydrogenated oils, canola oil, palm oil, added sugars.

Gluten-Free Flours

Perfect for gluten-free baking, bread, crackers, breakfast foods, thickening soups and stews, or dredging fish or other animal products, we love having a variety of gluten-free flours in the pantry. Get our Gluten-Free Flour Guide and Substitution Reference here.

What to Look For: Single ingredient, certified gluten-free flours to ensure there hasn’t been any cross-contamination. We really like Bob’s Red Mill, which is widely available in North America.
What to Avoid: Gluten-free flour mixes that contain a ton of starches like corn starch, tapioca starch, potato starch and white rice flour. These flours are better when used in small amounts, but are often predominant in many flour mixes. If you have digestive issues, you may want to avoid mixes with xanthan gum.

Dried Herbs/Spices

Dried herbs and spices are wonderful in a pinch when fresh isn’t available, or if you find yourself buying fresh herbs and not using them before they spoil.

What to Look For: Organic, non-irradiated spices, either ground or whole. We like to purchase many spices whole and grind them ourselves to maintain their freshness and volatile oils.
What to Avoid: We prefer buying spices in jars or small cardboard boxes rather than plastic, and store them in a cool dark place.

Applesauce

Great as a snack or used as an egg substitute in baking, applesauce is a healthy packaged food that is rich in a variety of vitamins, minerals and fibre.

What to Look For: Organic applesauce, as apples are high up on the dirty dozen list, in jars if you can find them. You can buy plain applesauce or ones mixed with other fruits.
What to Avoid: Applesauce with added sugars, refined sugars, natural or artificial flavours.

Coconut Milk and Shredded Coconut

Coconut is anti-microbial and anti-bacterial, plus it contains medium-chain fats that balance blood sugar, fuel the nervous system and are easy for us to digest and use. Creamy coconut can swing both sweet and savory!

What to Look For: Coconut milk in BPA-free cans or cartons, unsweetened shredded coconut.
What to Avoid: Sulphites, preservatives, refined sugar or added sugars, guar gum or xanthan gum if you are sensitive to them (they can cause digestive upset in some people).

Salsa

Whether you opt for mild, medium or super spicy, salsa is a wonderful condiment for chips, veggies, or burrito bowls.

What to Look For: Salsa in jars rather than cans (the acidity of tomatoes eats away at the lining of cans or plastic), organic salsa.
What to Avoid: Natural flavour, added sugars, artificial colours/food dyes.

Soup

When you don’t have time to make a hot pot of soup, a high-quality store-bought variety can help you create an easy one pot meal – especially if you bulk it up with gluten-free grains, extra vegetables, or a source of protein.

What to Look For: Organic varieties if they are in your budget, BPA-free cans or cartons, low sodium. Many grocery stores will also have house-made soup in the hot foods section or refrigerated section to take home without preservatives, but check labels for ingredients like added sugars or canola oil.
What to Avoid: Colours and food dyes (caramel colour is often in soups), high sodium, glutenous flour or pasta, butter, cream or milk, canola oil, hydrogenated oils, added sugars, soybean oil, yeast extract.

Sauerkraut and Pickled Vegetables

make pickles

There is a difference between sauerkraut and pickles that have been fermented with a salt and water brine, and pickled foods that use a heated vinegar brine to create the sour flavour. We much prefer the former, for both the taste and the health benefits.

What to Look For: Look in the refrigerator case for true fermented vegetables that should only contain water, salt and spices.
What to Avoid: Artificial colours, sulphites, white vinegar, sugar, preservatives.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is a versatile oil in the kitchen – it can be used in everything from medium-temperature baking or roasting to stovetop cooking to condiments like salad dressings, dips and hummus.

What to Look For: Cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil, organic, in a dark bottle.
What to Avoid: Olive oil that has been adulterated with cheaper, low quality oils. Learn how to suss out rancid olive oil here.

Pasta Sauce

No time for simmering? Grab a jar of store-bought pasta sauce for pasta dishes, pizza, soups or stews.

What to Look For: Pasta sauce in glass jars or BPA-free cans, organic, low sodium.
What to Avoid: Natural flavours, hydrogenated oils, canola oil, added sugars, refined sugars, artificial flavours, sauce in plastic containers or BPA cans.
Healthy packaged foods aren’t always easy to navigate, but with these guidelines, you can begin to determine which ones fit into your lifestyle, as well as when it’s worth it to take a shortcut. Once you figure out the healthy packaged foods you enjoy, they can be great companions to your cooking.
Healthy Packaged Foods
Image Credit: iStock/Kwangmoozaa

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