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Watch out for these health busters

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.

soda cans
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?

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  1. Maya

    This is a great list Lisa. Appreciate the information about the dyes. I started to cut out a lot of these things when I got pregnant.

    Make and freeze has been my best hack to keeping away from processed foods. I buy the same standard ingredients and make a LOT of different things with them.

    Maya´s last blog post…Are you rich but unhappy? Or poor and happy Or something else?

  2. Shannon @ AnchorMommy

    Bleck — an avocado dip with dyes? That sounds gross.

    HCFS really is everywhere! I have a go-to list in my head of products (like ketchups, teriyaki sauces, breads, etc.) that don’t have any HCFS in them, so that way I know which brands to reach for in a hurry when I’m pressed for time.

    And cutting back on convenience foods is definitely the way to go! I rarely rely on them anymore. Our meals are much tastier, too. 🙂

    Shannon @ AnchorMommy´s last blog post…Easy Asian Pasta

    • Nicole Galiger

      Does anyone have a resource or list to direct me to in order to see what items are good to avoid (one posted that she had a mental list of items that don’t have HCFS) but I’m just starting to read the labels and would love a jump start!

  3. Emma @

    While we’re on the subject of healthy food, there is a misconception about wholegrain bread – many people think it’s healthier because of some nutrients that disappear from processed flour. I’ve read an article a couple of days ago that explains why this is not true and why we don’t need to pay extra for the whole grain loaves, here is a link:

    Emma @´s last blog post…First weeks at child care: not happy, mum!

  4. Catherine

    Thank you for this post. I think it cuts through many confusing issues about processed food and gives a simple summary of what you can do.

    Catherine´s last blog post…cooking with grandma

  5. Aimee

    Thanks for clearing this up for us Lisa. Great post. Although I try to avoid these culprits as much as possible, I’m sure a few slip through the cracks. Now I can be on the lookout!

    Aimee´s last blog post…Announcing…UtHC Jam Swap ’09

  6. Nicki

    What you are doing here, making people more aware of the food they eat, is a good thing but I’m sorry to say I feel the way you are going about it is not great. It is scaremongering. Please remember when making these kind of claims (the kind that makes mothers all over the world come out in a cold sweat), add references so people can follow up with their own research .

    I was really unsure of whether to post this comment (because I don’t like to be negative) but feel it is important that people read a wide range of articles on a subject, for and against, before drawing your own conclusions.

    Just a few articles to get you started…

    • Lisa

      Hi Nicki,

      I’m sorry you feel this article is fear-mongering. In my experience I always emphasize how we can positively influence our health and diet and certainly steer clear of misleading science and fear-tactics.

      The truth is though that most of us do pick and choose from “food-industry-made” products and having some information on how to make smart choices against the myriad of options we have is important.
      I hoped this information just served as a starting point to help begin to make sense of the many added ingredients that are put into our foods. As in all things it’s important to reach a balance, and not become panicked or obsessive about our food choices, but to feel good about feeding ourselves and our family in healthy ways most of the time.

  7. Susan

    Thank you so much for posting this, these are great tips! Sometimes trying to feed my family healthy foods can get overwhelming and I feel bad when I cheat and use convenience foods. These 3 simple guidelines make things easy.

    This is especially important when couponing because so many of those packaged items are not good for you and you really have to read labels.

    For example, do I really want to feed my family BBQ sauce that is just HFCS and dyes?? NO! Even if it is free, I don’t buy it. 🙂

    Susan´s last blog post…Festival of Frugality

  8. Johanna

    I like the “could I actually make this” rule. As for food controversies and scares, I agree that reading a wide range of articles is a good idea. I wish I knew more chemistry too!
    However, I think everyone who is trying to eat healthier is doing a good thing, and I think the best way to do that is to have a varied diet. If you don’t eat too much of one thing that might be “bad”, it won’t have a chance to harm you severely.

    • Lisa

      Isn’t that the truth–it seems the flashier the design the longer the ingredient list, huh?!

  9. Peggy

    Great post! We have cut additives from our diet due to my son’s inability to tolerate them and the subsequent (and frequent!) meltdowns, the intensity of which were phenomenal. Going artificial dye-flavour-preservative free has made a HUGE difference and exposed another issue, which will be much easier to work on now that it can be seen.

    I did not at all feel that there was fear-mongering in this post. I thought it was very well presented and simply asked the reader to take an honest look at shopping and eating habits and decide for themselves how much, if any, change could be made in their life. Again, great article!

    Peggy´s last blog post…words to sleep on

  10. debbie

    Great post! I teach a cooking class for new parents, and we talk a lot about how to shop for processed foods–IMO having something nearly-ready to go is a necessity for parents with babies, especially, if they’re going to get their own dinner on the table. The key is to make wise, well-informed choices.

    One other ingredient to watch out for: Sodium. A lot of prepared/processed foods are very (very) high in sodium, sometimes an entire day’s worth in one serving. Avoid those products, for sure.

    debbie´s last blog post…Parents Need to Eat, Too: New Series of Classes Starts in July

  11. Shannon

    I am currently reading Dr. Sear’s book you referenced and I have really been enlightened. If you eat better you feel better. Simple. And in my opinion, knowledge is power. Thanks for the knowledge and help in creating a healthier and better life!

  12. Amy

    I have read several times that the majority of your grocery store shop should come from the perimeter of the store, which is where all of the natural foods are found…fruits and veggies, breads and grains, meat and dairy. As a general rule, I try to stick to this. I do love the “could I make this at home” question and think I will be incorporating this into my regular shop routine. Great article!

    • Lisa

      Hi Amy,
      I agree with your “perimeter plan”– I use it myself…it also helps me from busting my grocery budget– I only let myself buy things from the middle isles if they are on my list,it is too easy to get sucked into tossing an extra box of this, a couple bags of that into the cart because of impulse buying!

  13. Tammy

    Great list! I have avoided these things for quite a few years now.

  14. Jen

    Another great resource that discusses how processed food “interact” with your whole system is “Master Your Metabolism” by Jillian Michaels. Although she comes from a weight loss perspective, her message makes sense. She says if it doesn’t have a mother or grow in the ground, don’t eat it. And she’s actually funny (unlike how she is portrayed on “The Biggest Loser”) referring to processed foods as ‘Frankenfoods”. She gives her personal journey, from “former fattie” to celebrity trainer. I bought her book, not for the diet aspect, but from the aspect of eliminating anti-nutrient and chemical laden foods from our diet. It was the boost I needed to really read labels and if nothing else, avoid HFCS as much as possible. Do we still eat processed foods…oh yes. I can’t live without my chips and salsa. But now I eat Trader Joe’s Organic White Corn Tortilla Chips instead!

    • Lisa

      Thanks for this reference– I’ll look up that book and check it out!

  15. Fromagette

    If it isn’t impolite, I would like to correct some of the information on the trans-fats.

    First, in nature, the double bonds of mono- and poly-unsaturated fats (the good fats for us) are in the cis- postion (it looks like a C). When subjected to processing, some of the double bonds rotate into the trans- position. So, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils contain trans-fats, but are not completely trans-fats. The rest of the hydrogenated oil is saturated fat, which also isn’t good for us. Like was explained, it is very important to look at the label.

    Second, restaurants don’t use trans-fats to fry things, they use oils that contain trans-fats, most often hydrogenated and partially hydrogenanted oils. It is also interesting to note that over time even trans-fat free oils used for frying will contain trans-fats. The high heat needed for frying will cause the double bond to change from cis- to trans-. So not only do you need to make sure that trans-fat free oils are used, but they need to be changed regularly to prevent trans-fat formation.

    Sorry if this sounds a little nitpicky (and for the chemistry), but I studied Food Science/Food Processing in college and like to see correct information out there. Trans-fats are bad and we do need to avoid them, but we also need to understand what they are and how they are formed.

  16. Erin

    Wanted to point out another bonus — the more un-processed foods we eat, the less waste we create! All those processed foods come in so much packaging, wrapping, cardboard, etc. Buying ingredients and making meals yourself means much less to throw away. If you’re able to compost, it’s even better!

  17. marissa

    Be sure to watch out for HFCS in even “Whole Wheat Bread”. In my area, a new and cheaper brand has come out that mimics the packaging of the reputable bread and is tricky when you’re in a hurry — and lo and behold when I took time to read the label there it was, HFCS.

  18. Ninfa DePalma

    Thanks for all the great info on what to look out for when we shop for food. I am a Thyroid Cancer Survivor and every year I have to have a Whole body Scan to see if the cancer has creeped up anywhere!!!! Prior to the Scan I must follow an iodine free diet which consist of eating non-processed foods, you can find a great cook book that has 30 pages of some really good eat!!! WHen I follow this diet I drop 6-8 pound because it takes out all of the chemicals and junk that is bad for us! You can download the cook book at Even my huband eats the food and enjoys it.

    Keep up the great Blog and all your great ideas!!

  19. Rebecca in Michigan

    Hi Nicki,
    I hear what you are saying. It can be very overwhelming and finger pointing when all of this is brought up at once. Think positive. Take one of the three and work on it for a month or two. Then move on to another one. It does get easier one step at a time. We started our journey last fall and still have a long way to go, but I do feel much better knowing I am one step closer.

  20. Rebecca in Michigan

    I like your links.

  21. Kika

    This year we’ve been eliminating HFCS, continuing to watch out for MSG and significantly lowering sodium in our diets. Whew! The truth is, it is hard work but it slowly becomes easier with practice. I feel frustrated that some companies used these things in otherwise healthy foods (ex. frozen, breaded haddock/sole). Doesn’t make sense to me. I also read “The Healthiest kid in the Neighborhood” and have discussed the redlight/greenlight food concept with my children; it definitely helps that we’re all in this together.

  22. Life from the Roof

    I remember when I lived overseas, I ate whatever I wanted, but because processed foods were so hard to find, I made most things from scratch. Between that and walking to my job every day (15 minute walk each way), I usually came back to the States 10 – 15 lbs lighter than I normally am.

    Life from the Roof´s last blog post…Yahoo! App and 360 Importer

  23. Life from the Roof

    I also find it interesting/alarming that companies, aware of our fear of HFCS, are marketing processed foods as “natural” by replacing the HFCS with sugar, i.e. Natural Coke.

    Life from the Roof´s last blog post…Yahoo! App and 360 Importer

    • Anitra

      The point is that plain old sugar doesn’t mess with our feelings of hunger and fullness the way that HFCS does. Some foods just can’t be made without a sweetener (not only soda, also foods like bread) – and, given a choice, I’ll take food made with sugar instead.

  24. Cayla

    Hi Lisa,
    If you would like backup for eliminating synthetic dyes, such as red 40, please take a look at It has loads of references, news clips, and suggestions on eliminating synthetic artificial dyes and why it would be a good thing to eliminate. Anyone wanting to know more about how red dye 40 and other synthetic dyes might be affecting their child’s behavior, I would recommend taking a look at my blog. I created this blog after discovering that our family was sensitive to these dyes and how eating foods with them changed our moods, made us easily frustrated at nonsense things, and how it made my child appear to have conduct disorder and increased violent behavior (hitting his brothers and mom). After eliminating red dye 40, I discovered my son’s peaceful loving nature again – only to worsen when he ate something with this dye in it. Then I noticed how my mood had changed considerably after eating foods with it in it. So now my passion is to get as many people as possible aware of the dangers of synthetic dyes and hopefully more children will be spared the side-effects of red dye 40. In my opinion and the opinion of my Neurologist husband, red dye 40 should be considered a drug and doesn’t belong in our grocery store foods and medicines. We now have eliminated all synthetic artificial dyes and my children have gained the self-esteem and happiness that they deserve. How many more children are suffering needlessly. Thank you for spreading the news and for a wonderful blog!

    Cayla´s last blog post…American food companies have different ingredients for Britains

  25. Katy

    I thought this was a terrific post. I went to the store today and tried to buy hamburger buns with no luck – all had HCFS!

    If anyone has a recipe, please let me know.

    Katy´s last blog post…Love this post!

  26. Greta @ What Works For Mama

    What a great tip sheet! I am pretty familiar with how to weed out trans fat and HFCS, but I haven’t given a whole lot of thought to dyes. I will be on the lookout for those numbers now! Thanks.

  27. SaraR

    Thanks for a nice concise list of simple ways to eat healthier. I’ve kind of fallen off the wagon a bit and am scrambling to get back on. Although I know it’s bad I really don’t bother to check for HFCS but now I will be looking and being more picky! I’m also going to be checking for dyes. As mom to a 3 year old anything that may affect attitude is important!

  28. laura

    Thank you for such an enlightening article! I heard that dyes in food could affect behavior, but I wasn’t sure if it was true. After reading your post I’ll definitely be doing more research on it. Isn’t it amazing what people will put in food?! Scary.

    laura´s last blog post…Are you living the sweet life?

  29. Ivy

    Thanks for the article. Very helpful!

  30. Katie @ 3 Blondes and a Redhead

    I was getting ready to write a similar post on my own blog but you really simplified things by reducing the “can’t haves” into just 3 categories! This was very well written and not as overwhelming as the things I read when I first got on board with “no processed foods.”

  31. Alexandra Howard

    I’m a processed food junky and even though I would love to eat healthier, I can’t stand veggies or very many fruits. I love pop-tarts, forzen “meat” patties, and other fake food….the faker the better. I loved your post and really try to feed my family better than what I eat, but my little boy is so picky. I spent months making my own organic, homemade baby food and breastfed for 22 months, but still my kids loves eggos and easy mac. After his weight was so low for so long, the Dr. said, feed him whatever he wants, something is better than nothing at all, but I try to keep it healthy.

  32. Amy @Feasibly Fit Mom

    Thanks for posts such as these. Two websites I refer to often: and Darya (a scientist and foodie) at Summer Tomato wrote a great guest post on processed foods: “When Is a Calorie Not a Calorie?” here: (no affiliation with either of these, I just think it’s really important info to get out there).
    And I just want to say I think we’re all doing the best we can…

    Amy @Feasibly Fit Mom´s last blog post…Meal Plan: Week of June 8

  33. Alissa

    I love lists like this that give me a few things I can focus on to make a big difference! Rather than a list of 100 things that could help our health – here’s just 3 things to watch for. Of course, they are big things, but it gives me motivation to start making more changes.

    Right now, I do my best to stay out of the aisles at the grocery store and “shop the perimeter” to focus my shopping on produce, dairy, breads, etc and stay away from crackers, chips, soda, etc. We still have a long way to go…

  34. Heather @ alis grave nil

    Ugh, corn syrup is the hardest one for me… it’s in so many things that just taste so GOOD! We made the shift with trans fats some time ago–barely even noticed. Now I’ll get to work on the dyes.

    Heather @ alis grave nil´s last blog post…Please be strep.

  35. sallyavena

    I think you should add MSGs too. That really should be the 4th group.

  36. Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship

    Help! I am committed to avoiding all three of these as much as possible (although I’m not very on top of the food coloring thing yet…), but my m-i-l is just not on board. In fact, I messed up and made a comment just last night because she brought a store-bought birthday cake for my daughter’s first birthday that I’m sure had all three of these in it. She knew daughter wouldn’t be allowed to partake of it, but brought it anyway. I felt usurped and disrespected in my own home. Do either of you (Lisa or Tsh) have any recommendations for family relations and making good nutritional choices for the kiddos? I feel like they all think I’m a crazy extremist just because I try to stay away from processed foods and too many sweets for the little ones…

    Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship´s last blog post…Last Chance for Bugaloo Shoe Giveaway!

    • Linn

      We’re much more “strict” with what we let our kids eat than our relatives and friends are, so I know how you feel! I’ve found that the best thing for potlucks/parties is to put myself in charge of making the things that others might use processed ingredients for, that way I know the ingredients and am comfortable with them. As for a cake or pinata candy or something like that, I figure that it’s not a normal part of their diet so I let it go at parties. I don’t want other moms or relatives to think I’m trying to act “better’ than they are, and I don’t want my kids to resent not being able to participate in normal childhood activities like parties. But I do steer them towards the more healthy alternatives at parties and don’t have those things in our house. I figure you can’t convert/convince people who don’t want to hear it!

      Linn´s last blog post…Beach Nights Have Begun!

  37. Laura

    Thank you for those ingredient NOs! We had to read ingredient labels for a time and it is very time consuming but necessary. These are things I will now look out for and cut as much as possible. : ) thank you!

  38. Sivana

    I use the “do I know this word?” test. Basically, I reject any “food” product if it has a word in the ingredients list that I don’t know. “Apple” is okay. “Red dye 47” is not. I guess it’s pretty much the same as the “could I make this at home?” test.

    As for convenience, that was my major argument against switching my diet. Once I finally made the change, though, I realized that it doesn’t take any more time to wash an apple than it does to open a candy bar. Whatever small amount of convenience I might get from not producing meals in my own kitchen from “real” food products is far outweighed by the health issues.

  39. Karen

    I love the simplicity of your list – yes, one could get more scientific – but I think that we’re all more likely to take steps if they are simply defined. And one at a time. I will be sharing this link on my blog site, realmomsrealfood, where I post recipes and suggestions for eating “real” food rather than processed and eating locally and seasonally as well.

    Karen´s last blog post…RMRF 26: COOKING WITH FRIENDS

  40. ChristineG

    Great post. I share the same definition of real food — I blogged about it here: Thinking about whether or not we could make the same thing at home if we wanted to, I think, makes the choices much easier and clear. It is so nice to be freed from a bunch of rules about x amount of this mineral or x amount of this vitamin or fat. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

    ChristineG´s last blog post…The Habit of Calm: Sorry to tell you this

  41. Miechelle

    What a beautifully done post!! I enjoyed reading it as a refresher course for the things I have been ranting about for the last few years. I’m South African and so couldn’t understand why food didn’t taste “real” even though it was the same thing when we came to the States. Then I started researching and learnt about the HFCS and the trans- fats which, though present on occasion back home, are simply not as prevalent. I have accordingly retrained my American husband as to making food from scratch at home though for the sake of honesty I must also admit to oftentimes ranting about how convenient everything is here to my family and friends at home but, I am reminded by your post of the real price of that convenience and reinforced in my push for us to “do everything better than they can” at home.

    As to the dyes, well, my “baby” brother (now 33) was that rare of rare creatures, a kid diagnosed with HDD in the mid 1970’s and one of the things one of the various doctors my Mom tried out (they all prescribed Ritalin so she kept replacing them) was that she had to avoid food with dye in it. Because it was being avoided for my brother, it was avoided for all of us and I left home knowing vaguely to be careful of “colourful” food. The result has been that I am averse to soda, store prepared confectionary and candy and that I have never allowed my own daughter much of them. Interestingly, she too has a taste for what she calls “real food” and prefers not to eat takeout since we have moved here – goes to show, you raise a sweet tooth and that means you can change it so hope is not lost, no matter how hard the food companies want us to think it is.

  42. Chilli pickles

    A great blog with some interesting information. Thanks.

  43. Dippidy

    I posted a link to this post on my blog. I hope that’s alright with you. I found your information very interesting!

    .-= Dippidy´s last blog ..How hard would it be… =-.

  44. HypnosisOnline

    I really like the question of “Could I actually make this in my kitchen?”. I think that if we all asked that question at the supermarket an awful lot of food would be left on the shelves.

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