I’m a firm believer in reading the labels of foods you choose to buy. Jack LaLanne said it pretty well: “If man made it, don’t eat it,” and even better is the philosophy of “If you can’t read it, don’t eat it.” Why? Because we’re essentially stuffing our bodies with chemicals that we’re not built to process, and furthermore, many convenience foods are so high in fat, sodium, or sugar that even if they do have any nutritional value, they undercut themselves by overloading our bodies with stuff that will jack up our weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol. We live in a world of hyper-processed convenience foods, and who’s going to buy tomatoes, garlic, oregano, ground beef, ricotta, mozzarella, and uncooked lasagna when you can just buy it ready-made to put in the oven for 15 minutes? It’s no wonder that we’re in the midst of an obesity epidemic.
However, there are some things we just can’t make ourselves sometimes. I sure don’t care to make chicken apple sausage, nor do I ever want to see it happening.
SIDENOTE: Have you ever SEEN sausage being made? It’s probably the grossest thing you’ll ever watch. Mostly because the casings look like a mix between condoms and shed snake skins.
Anyway, I’m happy to EAT the chicken apple sausage, I just don’t care to make it or watch it being made. And there are tons of other foods like this too, so to keep the food that enters my home on the healthy end of the spectrum, there are a few rules that I follow when I go shopping, and they fit neatly into 2 categories.
I set ingredient guidelines for myself before I go shopping so I know what to look for and avoid.
What to avoid:
-High fructose corn syrup, MSG, and artificial sweeteners like saccharine and aspartame don’t enter my home. I know it sounds preachy and high-and-mighty of me, but with very few exceptions, they don’t have a place in my family’s diet because for the most part, they’re primarily found in junk foods. I know they’re mostly inconsequential in moderation, but let’s not kid ourselves: snack foods are not made for moderation.
-Dyes and coloring additives that aren’t vegetable derivatives like beet or carrot juice
-Chemicals that sound like something that you forgot from chemistry class. Remember the whole “if you can’t read it, don’t eat it” thing? That.
-Enriched flours. “Whole wheat” and “100% Whole wheat” are strongly recommended. The whole “enriched,” “bleached” wheat flour nonsense? BS. That means it’s processed and no longer a WHOLE food. If you’re looking for breads, whole wheat flour should be the first ingredient and the only type of flour listed. (Spark People has a great article on choosing bread.)
What to look for:
-Simple ingredients. Flour, water, sugar, vinegar, salt, spices, vegetables, oils like olive oil or sunflower oil, etc. Familiarity is sometimes a very good thing.
-Few ingredients. I’ve noticed that foods with fewer ingredients tend to have more “real” or “whole” ingredients, versus an essay of unrecognizable chemicals. However, and again, read what those ingredients are.
-The order of ingredients. The more of the ingredient, the closer it is to the top of the list.
The nutritional value of something depends on what it is, of course, but it’s the next comparison I make after I’m satisfied with the ingredients listed if that doesn’t completely remove other products from the equation. There are lots of variables here, but the simplest example is shopping for breads. When I look for breads, I look for dietary fiber, total carbs, and protein. Again, there are lots of factors, but you’ll want to make the determinations based on your dietary needs, like low cholesterol, low fat, high iron, etc. Just beware labels that say “low” or “reduced” fat/sodium/carbs, etc. where the reduced factor is substituted for a ton of crazy chemicals.
I want to make enchiladas at some point this week, and I can’t make enchilada sauce that matches up to the store-bought stuff, so I compared a couple different brands at Target.
Now I didn’t get a good shot of the Old El Paso brand enchilada sauce’s ingredients, but I did find them:
Water, Tomato Puree (Water, Tomato Paste), Modified Corn Starch, Dried Red Chiles, Soybean Oil, Sugar, Salt, Citric Acid, Onion Powder, Monosodium Glutamate, Spice, Garlic Powder, Red Pepper, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (Corn, Soy and Wheat), Autolyzed Yeast Extract.
So while the Market Pantry brand is the lowest in sodium and Old El Paso is lowest in fat, both not only have added sugar, but they also have MSG. Gross. Las Palmas, on the other hand, had the fewest and simplest ingredients (fumaric acid serves the same function as citric acid, by the way). The winner of this round? Las Palmas, which is incidentally the lowest in calories.
Enchiladas also require tortillas, so I found 4 brands of “whole wheat” tortillas. When I compared the nutritional facts, I found that Guerrero (the one with the green text label) was the lowest in carbs & sodium, and highest in dietary fiber. That’s my personal criteria, but again, make your own determinations based on dietary needs.
A few extra tips
-Shop the perimeter of the grocery store. Most of the heavily processed or “unfresh” foods will be in the innermost aisles.
-Spend lots of time in the produce section, and choose seasonal fruits and veggies when possible. They’ll be richly flavorful all on their own, so you won’t have to do or add much to them to bring out their best tastes.
-Choose organic when possible. If organic pushes your budget, this is a great chart to decide what/when to buy organic and what can go either way.
-Eat before shopping. The crap and quantities of said crap that have found their way into my house because I was starving when I went shopping are embarrassing.
Now I’ll be completely honest with you – I do have my very very rare exceptions.
I know, I know, I may seem perfect, but spoiler alert: I’m not. Sorry to ruin the magic.
Worcestershire sauce? Love that crap. I’d drink it if it weren’t completely disgusting… okay, so I wouldn’t, but I do like adding it liberally to my Bloody Marys. I haven’t broken down what I can use to recreate that flavor without all the fake sugar and sodium, so I concede to using it. However, it is incredibly rare that I ever use it, so to that I say, if you must break a rule, moderation is key. We all have our vices, and that’s okay, but have a bite to sate the craving, not the whole loaf/cake/pie/bowl/what have you. Fair enough, right?
What do you do to shop healthier?