When you start changing your diet, one of the most important things you can do is to start looking at the labels of foods you buy. Unfortunately, you can’t trust the marketing lingo on the front of the box. A product may claim to be all natural, whole grain and no sugar added – and still be full of chemicals, sodium and artificial sweeteners. So you may think you are being healthy but in reality it is that food that is bringing you down! The best thing to do is to look at the ingredient labels and compare that to the nutritional label to see if it’s a healthy-ish option.
I look at the ingredient list first. The ingredients are listed in order of the ingredient that is in the highest concentration in the food. So if the number one ingredient is sugar….yeah, it’s going back on the shelf! I look for the top ingredients to be foods that I recognize, whole grains, etc. I look for a minimum of things I don’t recognize. If I don’t know what it is, do I want to eat it?? There are a lot of sneaky words for added sugar, which often are things like fructose, sucrose, syrup of various varieties (corn, rice, etc). I don’t mind if honey or pure maple syrup are added, as long as the overall sugar content in the label isn’t that high – a few grams or less. Women should consumer less than 20g of added sugar per day and men 36g.
Sodium is the next thing I look at, because sodium is often added in large quantities to make food taste better. Everything tastes better with salt! But I would like to be the one to add it in small amounts. As with sugar, I look for the sodium level to be in the single digits and as low as possible.
I don’t buy a ton of processed foods, because they are usually high in one of these! Milton’s crackers and cereal and gluten free pretzels are probably my only “staples” that I buy in the snack category. Oh and Z Bars, which are organic, I am pretty comfortable with all the ingredients and my kids love them. So I feel less guilty about them being “processed.” More about cereal in another article (my 5 year old LOVES cereal, I used to eat it every day but after reviewing the sugar content on pretty much every box of cereal I save it for an occasional treat meal!). My husband is a celiac so he likes the gluten free pretzels.
There are a number of other things you can look at…calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat…I try to stay away from GMO (genetically modified ingredients), MSG, partially or full hydrogenated oils…
And added vitamins and nutrients are all well and good but I’m not going to consume extra sugary items for that reason! I feel it’s sort of a marketing strategy to make it appear healthier than it is!
There are a lot of things but I focus on the ingredients first, because the ingredients will tell me if there is crap in it and if the sugar is high then the calories and carbohydrates will be too! This is a very broad overview, and if you’d like a more indepth one you can read more about it on the FDA’s page here. When I’m in the grocery store with both my 5 and almost 3 year old, I have about 10 seconds to scan a label before I get interrupted and the ingredient scan and sugar and sodium scan give me a really quick idea if I want to buy the item or not. Rule of thumb – stick to the perimeter of the grocery store for clean eating!