On Your Health

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Your Guide to Choosing Healthier Convenience Foods

Undoubtedly, most of us have heard the constant refrain from nutrition experts online and in the media that processed and convenience foods are to be avoided at all costs if you want to achieve a healthy lifestyle. These foods have been blamed for obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease, but you may be wondering, "Are convenience foods REALLY that bad?"

It's true that convenience foods like fast food meals and boxed macaroni and cheese are often high in sodium, calories, fat and sugar. But did you know there are also healthier convenience foods, such as canned and frozen fruits and vegetables as well as some frozen pre-made meals, that are as good for your waistline as they are for their time-saving appeal?

In my work I often advise people how to eat a healthy diet. I hear from so many of them that they believe fresh fruits and vegetables are “better for you” than frozen or canned, yet I also hear that many people do not buy fresh produce because it's costly, time-consuming to prepare, and often goes bad before they have a chance to cook it. But because these folks deem frozen and canned fruits and vegetables "less healthy" they don't want to buy them, either. Sometimes, this means they go without fruits and vegetables in their diets all together.

I'm here to tell you: regarding frozen and canned fruits and vegetables, I'm a fan. They CAN be healthy and CAN be incorporated into a healthy diet. And, of course, they are convenient for you to consume, because they are packaged, washed and cut for you, which means you're more likely to use them. Often, all you need to do is microwave them or cook them over the skillet for a few minutes.

A few facts about frozen and canned produce

The nutrient content of canned and frozen fruits and vegetables is comparable to fresh, and in some cases, may be higher than fresh. Produce is canned or frozen at its peak freshness, immediately after harvesting. Depending on how the produce is processed, freezing and canning may actually preserve some of the nutrient value by locking in the nutrients, due to the lack of oxygen during the storage period. Including canned and frozen forms of fruits and vegetables can add variety to your diet, because some fresh produce may not be widely available all year. Have you ever bought strawberries in January for a hefty price and they didn’t even taste that good? It's because they are not in season (in Oklahoma) in January. You are likely paying for the transportation of the strawberries, and they are likely losing nutrients during the lengthy time it takes to get from where they were grown to your grocery store shelf. I think it makes sense to buy frozen strawberries in the winter and wait until the middle of April when they are in season to buy them fresh -- it will save you money, they will taste better, and you'll likely get more nutrients!

Things to consider when buying frozen and canned produce

Watch for sodium. Sodium is often added to canned vegetables to preserve them. Check the nutrition facts label and look for “low sodium” or “no salt added” on the nutrition facts label. Also, choose frozen vegetables with “no sauce added." Sauces and seasonings can add sodium, calories and fat. Watch for added sugars. Look for fruits that are canned in water or 100 percent juice. Avoid fruits canned in heavy syrup.  Choose frozen fruits without added sugars.

When in doubt, compare labels at the grocery store and opt for the product that has the lowest sodium and sugar content per serving.

How to incorporate canned and frozen produce into your diet:

  • Top a taco salad with canned low sodium corn and canned salsa.
  • Mix frozen blueberries into your yogurt or morning oatmeal.
  • Make a crock-pot chicken dish and add canned green beans.
  • Top a salad with canned mandarin oranges.
  • Make a smoothie using frozen berries.
  • Use frozen broccoli, frozen carrots and canned water chestnuts in an Asian stir-fry.
  • Roast canned chickpeas for a healthy snack.
  • Make a vegetable soup using frozen mixed vegetables.

What about frozen/pre-made meals?

Frozen meals can be similar to fast food in that they are high in sodium, fat and calories. Several types of pre-made meals contain large amounts of low-cost but less healthy starchy foods, such as white rice and potatoes, with little amounts of fruits and vegetables or lean protein.

However, according to a recent article in Today’s Dietitian (a magazine for nutrition professionals), there has been a shift: consumers are searching for foods that are both convenient AND healthy and the food industry is responding. More food companies are now offering healthier ingredients in frozen meals to meet consumer demand, with meal options that include smaller portions, simplified ingredients, low sodium, and higher amounts of vegetables, fiber and protein.

It is still very important to read labels while choosing your frozen and pre-made meals. Just because a frozen meal is labeled “organic," if it does not contain a good amount of vegetables or lean protein, it may not be the best choice for your body.

Tips for choosing frozen/pre-made meals:

  • READ THE LABEL! Look for a short list of ingredients and no added sugars
  • 300-500 calories is appropriate for most people to aim for per meal
  • Avoid meals with cream sauces, gravy or fried food
  • If the meal has carbohydrate, make sure it is whole grain pasta or brown rice
  • Choose meals that have less than 30 grams of carbohydrate
  • Choose meals with at least a half-cup or more of vegetables
  • Choose meals that include lean meat, fish or poultry
  • Choose meals that use good fats like olive oil or canola oil
  • Choose meals that have less than four grams of saturated fat and no trans fat
  • Choose meals that have less than 600 milligrams of salt. Look for “low sodium or no sodium added”
  • Choose meals that have at least five grams of fiber
  • Choose meals that have at least 15-20 grams of protein

Finally, don’t be afraid to add to whatever the frozen meal is lacking. If an entrée contains 200 calories or less, it may not be enough to be considered a “meal” and may not keep you full long enough. Consider adding a half-cup of vegetables or eat it over a side salad. If the meal is lacking protein, add a half-cup of beans. Or, eat a piece of fruit after the meal, or a carton of low-fat yogurt.