01/08/2012 10:59 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2012

Healthy Processed Foods: Do They Exist?

It's unrealistic to think that the average person, who's faced with fast food and processed food on a regular basis, can start following a completely rigid diet of 100 percent "clean," fresh or local foods. While it may work for some people, it's not reasonable for the masses as issues of seasonality and transportation make it difficult for all of us to access fresh and local foods all the time.

The Better Homes and Gardens 2010 Food Factor Survey revealed just how dependent today's cooks are on convenience foods. Of 3,600 women surveyed from across the United States, 71 percent of them purchased convenience produce (eg., prepared salads, chopped fruits and vegetables), and 81 percent purchased convenient forms of fresh poultry and meats regularly.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the quest for convenience is leading more people to consume away-from-home quick-service or restaurant meals or to buy ready-to-eat, quickly accessible meals to prepare at home. When the wrong choices are made, the trend contributes to obesity, especially among children. However, while most people might think of processed food as something that comes wrapped in plastic from a factory across the country, many processed foods can deliver lots of nutrition without doing you any harm.

The best way to assess a food's value is to decipher its nutrition facts panel. Besides the basics of paying attention to calories and serving size, here are tips from the Food and Drug Administration to guide you:

●Choose products with high daily value percentages (20 percent or more per serving) of fiber and of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron.

●Look for low daily value percentages (5 percent or less) of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.

●The following terms signal added sugars, which contain lots of calories but little nutritional value: corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, honey and maple syrup.

Healthful Processed Convenient Foods

Here's a roundup of foods that, though processed and packaged, pack a nutritional punch.

healthy processed foods

For more by Joanna Dolgoff, M.D., click here.

For more on diet and nutrition, click here.