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
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.
Plain Frozen Vegetables
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.
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.
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.
Beans – Canned and Dried
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.
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.
When made with quality ingredients, chocolate can be a nutritious addition to your diet. It’s one of our favourite healthy packaged foods!
Often a combination of nuts, seeds, dried fruit and chocolate, trail mixes make a great snack when you’re on the go.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Whether you opt for mild, medium or super spicy, salsa is a wonderful condiment for chips, veggies, or burrito bowls.
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.
Sauerkraut and Pickled Vegetables
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.
No time for simmering? Grab a jar of store-bought pasta sauce for pasta dishes, pizza, soups or stews.