How to Buy Healthier Packaged Food

Dietitians are a rare breed of weirdos that get as excited about food shopping as we do about avocado toast — just kidding (not really). But I know that for many people who are trying to eat healthy, food shopping can be overwhelming to say the least. There are endless aisles of food products and brands all vying for our precious attention and money. Plus, now that more brands are working to market themselves as healthy and natural — whether or not they actually are — it’s getting even more difficult to make informed decisions regarding which products to pick.

Here’s my fool-proof guide to help you pick out the truly healthy choices from the phony marketers.

Don’t Get Fooled by Label Claims!

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Food packages often offer eye-catching health claims to encourage us to put them in our shopping carts. Beware, however, because certain assertions are just deceptive marketing ploys. Many of these claims, like “all-natural” or “heart healthy”, have no true definition. Other claims, like crackers “made with whole grains” are just as ambiguous — the crackers might be 99% whole grain or 1% whole grain. Some food companies even add vitamins and minerals to obviously processed products in an effort to appear healthier. Think about it though, if a company adds vitamins and minerals to a packet of pure sugar, is the sugar now considered healthy? Absolutely not.

As hard as it might be, do your best ignore label claims altogether. It’s true that some claims, such as organic, are well-regulated and generally trust-worthy. But even these can get confusing because there are different standards for “100% organic”, “organic”, and “made with organic”.

Remember, the healthiest foods in the supermarket don’t have any labels or health claims at all — fruits and vegetables!

Don’t Get Confused by the Nutrition Facts Panel!

Luckily, we can trust the nutrition facts panel will always be accurate. That’s why it’s called the nutrition facts panel, not the nutrition alternative facts panel (*ba-dum tss*). While these numbers are valuable, they’re not the first info you should look for on a package.

Here’s why:

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First, we don’t eat nutrients, we eat food. The numbers on the package don’t tell you where each nutrient came from. Which ingredient is responsible for those grams of protein? Fat? Fiber? Not all nutrients are created equal. You can eat 100 calories of Doritos and 100 calories of kale and they will not affect your body in the same way. Any specific nutrient’s effect on the body will differ based all sorts of factors, including its level of processing or cooking, and the rest of the nutrients in the food. For example, sugar found naturally in fruit is good for you due to the fiber, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients that surround it. But refined sugar added to cookies is surrounded by refined flour, butter, etc. The apple and the cookie might contain equal amounts of sugar and calories, but they have very different effects in the body.

Second, for the average person, the numbers on the nutrition facts panel can be confusing and somewhat meaningless without a greater understanding of how much protein, fat, carbs, sodium, etc. one should eat in a day. To make matters more complicated, everyone’s needs are different and not even a dietitian can know for sure how much of any single nutrient you need. I often hear clients tell me they have no idea what to do with the grams, milligrams, and micro-grams listed. I don’t think anyone should need a degree in nutrition to understand what they’re eating — although it certainly doesn’t hurt ;).

While I’m happy to teach you all some general recommendations for understanding those numbers (and I plan to in a future post), there’s a much easier and more comprehensive way to quickly determine the healthfulness of a food without needing to calculate your nutrient needs or memorize any values…

Focus on the Ingredient List!

Whenever I pick up a food item, I immediately flip it over and look for the ingredient list. Within seconds I’ll know if the food is healthy or not. You may not be used to looking for this lovely list, but you can usually find it below or next to the nutrition facts panel. Sometimes it’s slightly harder to find, but rest assured it will be there somewhere.

Here are my guidelines for what to look for in an ingredient list.

NOT a short list!

NOT a short list!

  1. Look for items with short ingredient lists.

    Choose foods with around 5 or fewer ingredients. Shorter ingredient lists mean your food likely contains fewer highly processed (read: unhealthy) additives, such as sugars, cheap oils, fillers, preservatives, etc. Shorter lists aren’t always healthy, as with that 5-ingredient Häagan-Dazs, but generally speaking a shorter list is a good sign.

  2. Focus on the first 3-4 ingredients. 

    All ingredients are listed by weight, with the most used item listed first and the least used item listed last. In other words, the first 3-4 ingredients in the list are the most abundant in your food item and should be more thoroughly considered when deciding if a food item is nutritious or not.

  3. Avoid food products with some form of sugar in the top 3 ingredients.

    If there is sugar in the top three ingredients, then it constitutes a pretty large part of your food. Added sugar comes in many forms, but unfortunately, they are all highly processed and unhealthy. Be on the lookout for any of the following: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, trehalose, and turbinado sugar. Two helpful rules: if it ends in “-ose” or “syrup”, it’s a sugar.

  4. Choose foods with wholesome, healthy ingredients.

    Trust yourself to know what is healthy and what is not. Don’t overthink this. Make sure you can recognize and pronounce each ingredient (or at least most of them). A good rule of thumb is to avoid ingredients you wouldn’t keep in your kitchen. Look at the ingredient list above: do you keep corn syrup, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, sorbitan monostearate, or carrageenan in your home? I sure hope not.

    It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the scary words, but remember: if you’ve never heard of an ingredient, it’s probably not natural.

Putting it All Into Practice

Nutrition bars, energy bars, protein bars — call them what you want, but be sure to check the ingredient list before buying them. These bars pose the perfect example of a product that is often marketed as ultra healthy and natural, but is often just a blend of processed crap.

To be honest, all bars are processed so I don’t recommend relying too heavily on any of them as your go-to snack. Instead of a bar made with fruit, nuts and seeds, lets just eat fruit, nuts and seeds. With that said, no one is perfect and bars can still offer some convenient, relatively healthy relief when in a pinch — as long as we pick the right ones.

Take a look at the popular bars below and trust yourself to know which is actually healthy and which is a bonafide candy bar.

Screenshots from Clif Bar’s and Larabar’s websites.  Can you believe the first, fourth, and seventh ingredients in the Clif Bar are different types of sugar?!?

Screenshots from Clif Bar’s and Larabar’s websites. Can you believe the first, fourth, and seventh ingredients in the Clif Bar are different types of sugar?!?

The more you look at ingredient lists, the more patterns you’ll notice in our processed food supply. You might notice that the same crappy ingredients, like various forms of sugar and refined vegetable oils, seem to show up over and over again in all sorts of products. You’ll gradually become a more informed shopper and eventually, you might just opt for more whole foods as you learn what’s actually going into your grocery cart.

Want to learn more about how to make healthy choices? Schedule a free 15-minute phone consult today to ask me your questions!

Laura SilverComment