What's in my food? How to be a savvy consumer...
Navigating the world of food labeling and product marketing is overwhelming, even if you have a road map. Food manufacturers market their products using every angle in the hopes of reaching a larger group of consumers. Chances are, any food you purchase in a container, wrapper or bag has some verbiage or images on it toting how delicious or healthy it is for you! But is it really good for you? And how do you know? Here's a few rules to follow the next time you head to the store to stock up...
1. Always check the ingredients list!
This list cannot lie - it must meet requirements regulated by the FDA and USDA. Look for food items that contain recognizable whole food ingredients, "whole" grains and natural colors/flavors and pass on food items that contain preservatives, artificial colors and flavors. (See some tips in my previous blog post about identifying common preservatives.)
2. "Organic" and "all natural" are not the same...
"Organic" refers to the farming process used to produce a food item (produce or livestock). In order to be labeled "organic" the food must be grown or raised without prohibited pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics or hormones. Keep in mind there are different levels of organic (100% organic being the highest grade) depending on how strictly the farmer followed the requirements and what amount of prohibited products may have been used. The Environmental Working Group is a good resource for identifying cleaner food choices.
"All natural" refers to a food product that is free from artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. When shopping processed food products such as cereals, breads, snacks, etc., it's best to look for these items (and double check the ingredients to be sure!)
3. Be wary of food products marketed as "fat free", "gluten free", "sugar free", "lean" or "healthy."
These claims hold no real weight in terms of the quality of a food product! Food manufacturers know that health conscious consumers choose products they perceive to be healthier for them and these front package claims make their items more appealing.
"Gluten free" foods are not necessarily healthier choices, unless you are gluten intolerant or have been diagnosed with Celiac disease. In fact, these items are often produced with more refined starches (rice and potato flour, for example) which have a higher glycemic index (causing more blood sugar spikes).
"Fat free" foods may be perceived as healthier because fat has been demonized by diet culture, but these foods often contain more artificial ingredients and sodium to make up for the flavor/texture lost by removing the fat. We need (healthy) fat, not only to make food more enjoyable (taste, mouth feel), but to promote the absorption of key nutrients and to fuel our body processes. Instead choose foods low in saturated fat (the unhealthy kind).
Similar to fat free foods, "sugar free" foods are often filled with chemical additives and sweeteners to make up for flavor that has been removed. All natural sugars found in whole foods such as dairy, fruit, whole grains and starchy vegetables are healthy to eat - in fact our body runs on them - so look for these to satisfy your sweet tooth. Natural sugar free sweeteners such as stevia (from the leaf of the stevia plant) are also a good alternative.
Foods labeled as "lean" or "healthy" are not following any specific health requirements. They are often taking advantage of diet fads or consumer perceptions of healthy eating in order to sell more product. For example, there has recently been a surge of "nutrition" cafes opening around the country selling nutrition teas and shakes. They market their meal replacement drinks as energy and immune boosting, packed with vitamins & minerals. With a little detective work you'll find these drinks are concoctions made from powdered supplements (of undisclosed ingredients), artificial colors/flavors and caffeine, with no real fruit or vegetables to be found in them. They are glorified energy drinks! The moral - don't judge a book by its cover. The healthiest foods are always the most whole - think... can I tell where this food came from?... the ground? a tree? which animal? The more processed a food, the less nutritious it likely is.
4. Healthy food speaks for itself!
Foods with the least packaging, labeling and health claims are probably the best choice. When was the last time you saw a bunch of carrots, bag of dried beans, or a head of lettuce plastered with stickers and health claims? Probably never... that's because healthy foods need no promoting - they are the ones straight off the vine, tree or animal.
5. Always ask questions - be an educated consumer.
If you're not sure about a product or food item - do some digging. Never assume based on the claims the food manufacturer highlights on their front packaging. Lookup the manufacturer or farm where the food came from to learn more about their process and ingredients. If you're ordering over a counter, ask the clerk more about the food items you're choosing from - where did they come from? Are there all-natural or organic options? What are the ingredients?
Food can be expensive, especially today, and the process of selecting the healthiest choices can be more time consuming, but the cost you bear to eat today could save you from the cost of chronic health conditions later, so be sure to align your priorities. Remember it's your money, your time and your health - spend wisely!