I know what you're thinking.
Whoa, Max. You're about to recommend packaged foods? UNFOLLOW.
You're right. The vast, vast, VAST majority of packaged foods consumed today are toxic—filled with rapidly digested carbohydrates, oxidized oils, fake colors, preservatives, and gut-busting emulsifiers. These foods now make up 60% of all calories consumed in the United States. It's no wonder our health is in the state it's in. But there are a few exceptions!
Here are my top 5 favorite packaged foods that are actually real foods, despite coming in packages.
1. Primal Kitchen Mayo
Primal Kitchen, run by mega-athlete and nutrition blogger Mark Sisson, is the only manufacturer I can think of that makes mayo that is actually—genuinely—healthy. Most purportedly healthy mayos (sold in big health food supermarket chains) tout being made with non-GMO canola oil, or some blend of canola and olive oil. But canola oil, organic or not, is easily-oxidized because of its polyunsaturated fat content. That means it goes rancid easily. It also often contains trans-fats created from the processing alone! Primal Kitchen mayo on the other hand is made only with avocado oil, which is a chemically-stable, primarily monounsaturated fat. I especially love their Chipotle Lime variety. If only I had more uses for mayo.
2. Phat Fudge
My friend Mary, known to hundreds of thousands of Instagram users as simply the Paleo Chef, is the proprietor of Phat Fudge. This stuff is the bomb-dot-com. Made with her secret blend of coffee, Egyptian spices (including turmeric), cacao (a potent source of health-enhancing polyphenols), and chemically stable fats, it's delicious eaten straight from the package or blended into a cup of coffee.
3. Grass-fed ghee
Butter is very low in milk solids—it's almost pure fat. But there are still traces of casein and lactose which may be problematic for some. For those wanting a more pure fat, there's ghee. Used for centuries in Ayurvedic cooking, ghee is a packaged food, produced when butter is gently heated so that the milk solids (which rise to the top) can be skimmed off and discarded. It's delicious and highly heat- and shelf-stable—it won't brown the way butter does. And, when sourced from grass-fed cows, it's also a wonderful source of many nutrients which have become lost to the modern diet, like vitamin K2, which helps shepherd calcium to its correct homes in your body. (Want to take a deep dive into the wonders of vitamin K2? I highly recommend Kate Rheaume-Bleue's book, Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox: How a Little-Known Vitamin Could Save Your Life.)
I currently enjoy Ancient Organics, which is a good value, organic, and comes from grass-fed cows.
4. Lion's Mane mushroom coffee
I love coffee. The nootropic (cognitive-boosting) effects are well-known. But as America's #1 source of dietary polyphenols (and a surprising source of prebiotic fiber), a morning cup of joe may also be one of the healthiest things you consume all day. (See my video with some other mind-blowing coffee facts.)
How can something that's already so good get even better? By combining it with Lion's Mane mushroom, a fungi that strangely resembles the pom-poms that cheerleaders use.
Used for centuries for its cognition-boosting effects, Lion's Mane, or Hericium erinaceus, was discovered to promote Nerve Growth Factors (NGFs)—molecules that stimulate the differentiation and re-myelination of neurons. (R, R) Perhaps this explains why it was found to improve symptoms in patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), considered pre-dementia. (R)
My friends Four Sigmatic make a premium instant coffee-Lion's Mane blend (as well as a pure Lion's Mane extract for coffee abstainers) which I am hooked on.
5. Extra-virgin olive oil
Extra-virgin olive oil is the juice of the olive fruit. It comes in a package, and yet is one of the healthiest foods money can buy, rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and powerful antioxidant polyphenols. Studies have shown liberal olive oil consumption to be associated with improved cardiovascular health, weight loss, and better cognitive function at levels of up to 1 liter per week.
For a deep dive into picking the right kind of olive oil (which admittedly can be tricky), watch this video interview I did with one of the worlds leading olive oil experts, oleologist Nicholas Coleman.
6. Nutritional yeast
I am obsessed with this nutritional yeast, or nooch. It is a rich source of protein (containing all 9 essential amino acids), dietary fiber, micronutrients, and is low in carbs. Oh, and did I mention it tastes just like cheese without the dairy? I literally put nutritional yeast on everything, from meat recipes to eggs to pastured pork rinds (a delicious low carb snack). It is one of the most versatile flavor enhancers in the kitchen, without adding any extra sodium. One purchasing tip, look for varieties that have not been fortified with synthetic B vitamins, which many people have trouble utilizing.
Sari Foods makes my go-to choice.
7. Dark chocolate
Cocoa is a powerful health booster, particularly because it is among the top highest ranking polyphenol-containing foods in the world (it comes in at #4 in a recent review published in Nature. Extra-virgin olive oil, by comparison, comes in at #61). These benevolent plant compounds have been found to boost cardiovascular health, brain health, cognitive function, and even athletic performance. (R) Cocoa is also a top source of magnesium, a powerful and critically important mineral that most people under-consume.
The problem is, finding high quality cocoa in its most common form—the chocolate bar—is like a skipping through a junk food minefield. Milk chocolate or white chocolate are straight-up candy—avoid. Dark chocolate is a safer bet, but even here there are some important things to know. For one, make sure the cocoa in your bar has not been processed by alkali, also known as "Dutch" processing. (Usually labels will say.) Two: Opt for 85% or higher cocoa content. Below this and not only do cocoa levels decline, but sugar levels increase. And lastly, spring for organic, which may ensure higher levels of polyphenols.
Green & Black's is my go-to choice which also happens to be easily found at many drugstore chains and supermarkets.
8. Kelp noodles
Kelp noodles are the top source of iodine, which is needed to build myelin in the brain, helping you think faster. It's also critical for healthy thyroid hormone production. And—what do you know—they are also very low in carbohydrates.
I like throwing some on salads, and if you're ever in LA, Erewhon's kelp noodle Pad Thai is impossibly delicious.
Hummus is a traditional food made by combining chickpeas with garlic, tahini (which are whole, ground sesame seeds), olive oil, and lemon. It is a very low glycemic load food, meaning, it doesn't flood your blood with glucose, and yet provides a nice blast of prebiotic fiber to feed the bacteria that live in your large intestine. It's also a great vehicle for extra-virgin olive oil, mentioned above.
I use hummus as a condiment on everything from grass-fed "bun-less" burgers (instead of ketchup, which is loaded with sugar) to grilled chicken. Be sure when purchasing to read the ingredients: Many cheaper brands use soybean oil or canola oil instead of the traditional extra-virgin olive oil—avoid these.