How many times have you walked down the grocery store aisle and been overwhelmed by all of the choices? You are looking for something reasonably healthy, and everywhere you look you see labels that say “heart healthy,” “low fat,” “no trans fats,” “sugar free,” “cholesterol free,” etc... How do you choose?
More often than not, when we food shop, we ultimately choose the product that seems the healthiest based on the product marketing- how can something that says “Approved by the American Heart Association” not be healthy? Unfortunately, these labels are often very misleading. As a result, well-intentioned folks who are trying to eat healthily and make good food choices end up eating yet more mediocre foods.
Learning how to read and decipher food ingredient labels might be the single most important new skill of your life! Here are a few good rules to follow:
- Always read the ingredient list. Always.
- The shorter the ingredient list, the better.
- If there is an ingredient listed that you don’t understand, you probably don’t want to eat it... Many products have long lists of chemicals, preservatives, dyes and artificial flavors.
- If there is something listed that is an acronmym or that has a number, you probably shouldn’t put it in your body... (For example: TBHQ, or Polysorbate 81)
- Avoid partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated oils (otherwise called Trans Fats).
- If the front of the package says “Zero Trans Fats”, read the label carefully. Thanks to the food industry’s lobby, the FDA allows foods that have less than 1% of trans fats per serving to list themselves as “Trans Fat Free”...
- Avoid added sugars. They are often disguised by different names. Here is a list of the most commonly added sweeteners: Corn Sweetener, Dextrose, Maltose, Corn Syrup, Glucose syrup, Saccharose, Crystalline Fructose, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Sucrose, Dextrin, Maltodextrin
- Avoid “enriched” products (even if it says “enriched wheat”). In addition to not having whole grains, these products often have added sweeteners like corn syrup, and coloring agents to make them look darker. Choose instead whole grain products that still have their naturally occurring ingredients like sprouted whole wheat, whole wheat berries, whole grain wheat flour, etc. Enriched flour has been stripped of its nutrients and then had its nutrients added back in the form of synthetic vitamins... Real food is ALWAYS better!
- Try to choose organic or local foods whenever possible. This includes meat and dairy. It’s very important to avoid eating meat and dairy products that come from animals fed antibiotics and hormones, because these drugs end up in your body as well.
This list may seem overwhelming- how did it get so complicated to grocery shop? There are so many things to consider; but by reading the food labels and choosing products accordingly, you can feel confident that you are making the healthiest choice. Below are a few other things you can do to make your job a little easier:
- Shop at stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Weaver Street Market, or other food cooperatives or health food stores. In general they stock brands that are higher quality. For instance, Whole Foods has a store-wide policy of not selling any product that contains high fructose corn syrup. Voila- one thing already off your list of things to avoid! You still need to read the labels even at these places, but at least it’s a start.
- Shop locally at Farmer’s markets and directly from local farmers/bakeries where you can ask about the ingredients, and many times you can see how the food is produced.
- Try to reduce the amount of processed food you buy or eat- period. For instance: Instead of buying a box of cold cereal which likely will have sweeteners and poor quality oils (at minimum), make some muesli or granola from the bulk food bins- add rolled oats, nuts, raisins, dates, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, honey or agave nectar and there you have a very healthy and substantial breakfast or snack- for less money and without any added preservatives, etc.
- Look for natural sweeteners that are easier on blood sugar levels and add them to your unsweetened foods and beverages. Some of the best to use are: Agave Nectar, stevia root or leaf, barley malt syrup, brown rice syrup, maple syrup, molasses, sucanat, unpasteurized (raw) honey, and xylitol.