We know that directing our diets away from highly processed foods and toward unrefined whole foods is a surefire way to increase our health and well-being. That said, most of us still use processed foods every day. Learning to quickly identify which ones are healthy is essential as we navigate our way through the grocery store.
Anything that has been altered from its natural state is technically considered processed. I tend to think of it this way: if it comes in a bag, box, wrapper, or carton — it’s processed. And yet, not all processed foods are the same. Some have wholesome, natural ingredients, and others are tainted with artificial additives and chemicals.
So how do we become savvy healthy food shoppers while jockeying the cart down an aisle with a babe on our hips and another running ahead? Keep a short and simple list of guidelines so we can quickly scan the ingredients and identify potentially unhealthy ingredients.
Red Light Ingredients
In The Healthiest Kids in the Neighborhood, the Sears family wrote that if you remove the following three “red light” ingredients from your diet, you’ll probably remove 90% of the junk you eat.
Photo by Alexander Kaiser
1. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
The Trap: Once you look for it, be prepared to find HFCS everywhere. It has really become ubiquitous in the food industry. There are a number of problems with this chemical, and Rachel from Small Notebook has a nice, concise article on some of them. Furthermore, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have found that HFCS messes with the hormones that regulate hunger and satiety, and that when we consume HFCS we do not feel as full, which leads to overeating. Another major concern is how much our children eat and the alarming rise in childhood obesity.
Smart Tip: Remove this chemical as completely from your diet as you can. It’s really a no-win additive, and the less you consume, the better. It’s best to wean high fructose corn syrup in small increments so that it’s not overwhelming. Make a list of all the foods you currently eat that contain it. Then one by one, seek out acceptable alternatives.
A helpful hint is to look for organic options of common foods (like ketchup or jams). Organic foods should not use HFCS, but always check the label to be sure.
2. Trans Fats
The Trap: Trans fats are chemically altered fats that are detrimental to our heart health. Nutritionists at Harvard have estimated that about 30,000 premature deaths due to coronary heart disease may be caused by consuming trans fats. Beyond heart disease, trans fats are also linked to diabetes, stroke and cancer.
The benefit to the food industry is that these altered fats are very stable, so they extend the life span of the food and allow it to sit in warehouses and shelves for a long time. The evidence against trans fats is so well established, though, that the Board of Health in New York City even passed a ban on the use of these fats, the first time a city has ever banned a food product.
Smart Tip: To identify trans fats, look directly at the ingredient list. Trans-fats are often called “partially hydrogenated oils” or “hydrogenated oils.” There is a labeling loophole that allows companies to list 0 grams of trans fat on the label if the true amount is under .5 grams. Considering that most of us never eat just one serving, and any amount of trans fats is bad for you — it is always best to see if it is in the ingredient list directly.
Fried foods in restaurants often are cooked in trans-fats, so unless the restaurant explicitly states they do not fry in trans fats, stay away from the fried stuff when eating out.
3. Dyes with numbers after them
The Trap: There are many natural ways to dye foods in order to increase their appeal, but natural dyes are more expensive than chemical dyes. In a meta-analysis of many studies, artificial dyes (they have a number next to them in the ingredient list) have been linked to behavior problems in children. Furthermore, the use of dyes can mask the absence of real food inside. For example, a popular guacamole dip gets its green color from Yellow 5, Yellow 6 and Blue 1, not from avocado (of which it has very little).
Smart Tip: Look for the numbers. When you scan the ingredients, the dyes are usually at the end of the list. If you find them present, move along. Again, opting for organic alternatives may be a good bet as you try and find new foods that avoid chemical dyes.
Ask this question
As a rule of thumb, when I buy a processed food I ask myself, “Could I actually make this in my kitchen?” Could I assemble all these ingredients and replicate it if I wanted to? This one question helps me weed out many of the problem ingredients we discussed, not to mention others like artificial sweeteners, chemical additives, and preservatives. If the product has ingredients that I recognize and often use in my own kitchen, I feel pretty comfortable buying it.
I rely on processed food in my diet because of the convenience they provide. I don’t have the time to make everything we eat from scratch. But in relying on processed foods, I don’t want to sacrifice my family’s health.
What other smart and healthy shopping tips do you use in the grocery store?