Grocery stores are loud, crowded, and offer an abundance of food products – many of which claim to be “healthy” or a “good source of” something. It’s not always appealing to take time to scrutinize the ingredient lists when we are already overstimulated by the chaos of our surroundings. While evaluating the ingredients is a helpful and healthful practice, it can quickly overwhelm any consumer – especially when a list is long and contains foreign words. But what if this practice could be simplified in both effort and time invested? How would it impact your nutrition habits?
To begin, it’s helpful to understand the anatomy of a grocery store. Typically, fresh food items such as produce, dairy, eggs, and proteins are found around the perimeter. Make shopping the perimeter the priority and select fruits, veggies, lean proteins (pork loin, white meat chicken and turkey, lean beef), and low-fat dairy products. The center of the store houses the grains, snack items, and canned and frozen foods. It’s in the middle of the store that deciphering the healthy items from the processed becomes tricky. This is where the ingredient list plays a significant role in helping us choose “this” over “that”.
The key is knowing what to look for and what to limit or avoid. To further simplify this process, think about each group of food items separately and the qualities that get the “green light” to purchase.
• Check the fiber content. A product that contains 2.5g of fiber per serving is a “good source” of fiber. A product that contains 5g of fiber per serving is considered “high” in fiber. The higher the fiber, the better.
• Made with whole grain vs. 100% whole grain. For a product to truly be whole grain, the first ingredient in the list should reflect whole grain, whole wheat or some derivative of those terms. Terms such as “enriched-bleached flour” or “white flour” or “degerminated” do not reflect a product that is whole grain.
Canned foods/dried fruits
• Sugar Added vs. Natural: Check for added sugar, which is usually listed as “high fructose corn syrup”, “honey”, “cane syrup”, etc. This means the product contains more than the sugars that naturally occur in the food itself. In other words, it’s processed. Keep looking for something that says “in natural juices” or “no sugar added”. This rule applies to dried fruits as well.
• Sodium vs. No Sodium Added. Canned (and frozen) foods are notorious for being high in sodium. Salt acts as a natural preservative and we do need some sodium each day, but in small amounts. Search for products that say “low” or “no sodium added”. You can always add salt to a meal if necessary.
Snack & other items
• Say NO to Trans fats. Many products contain a man-made fat called a “trans fat” and many research studies indicate trans fats to carry greater health consequences than saturated fat and cholesterol. If an ingredient list says “partially hydrogenated” anything, put it back on the shelf.
Keep it simple. Search for products that are most natural, low in sodium, and sugar, high in fiber and free of trans fats. While these tips do not cover every “food rule”, they provide a good start to learning how to differentiate the processed/hidden truth products from those that tell the “whole” truth and nothing but the truth.
Erin Nitschke is a health and human performance educator, NSCA Certified Personal Trainer, and ACE Health Coach & Fitness Nutrition Specialist. To contact Erin please email firstname.lastname@example.org.