Our family is attempting to direct our diet away from processed foods and less sugary treats. This is hard for me in particular as I have a super sweet tooth and I am not the most informed on how to identify healthy products ~ the family is lucky I serve them a well planned dinner! The original post on watching out for health busters is helping me learn to navigate the grocery store.
Anything that has been altered from its natural state is technically considered processed. I tend to think of it this way: if it comes in a bag, box, wrapper, or carton — it’s processed. And yet, not all processed foods are the same. Some have wholesome, natural ingredients, and others are tainted with artificial additives and chemicals.
So how do we become savvy healthy food shoppers while jockeying the cart down an aisle with a babe on our hips and another running ahead? Keep a short and simple list of guidelines so we can quickly scan the ingredients and identify potentially unhealthy ingredients.
Red Light Ingredients
In The Healthiest Kids in the Neighborhood, the Sears family wrote that if you remove the following three “red light” ingredients from your diet, you’ll probably remove 90% of the junk you eat.
1. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
HFCS messes with the hormones that regulate hunger and satiety, and that when we consume HFCS we do not feel as full, which leads to overeating.
Smart Tip:Remove this chemical as completely from your diet as you can. It’s really a no-win additive, and the less you consume, the better. It’s best to wean high fructose corn syrup in small increments so that it’s not overwhelming. Make a list of all the foods you currently eat that contain it. Then one by one, seek out acceptable alternatives.
A helpful hint is to look for organic options of common foods (like ketchup or jams). Organic foods should not use HFCS, but always check the label to be sure.
2. Trans Fats
Beyond heart disease, trans fats are also linked to diabetes, stroke and cancer. The benefit to the food industry is that these altered fats are very stable, so they extend the life span of the food and allow it to sit in warehouses and shelves for a long time.
Smart Tip: To identify trans fats, look directly at the ingredient list. Trans-fats are often called “partially hydrogenated oils” or “hydrogenated oils”. Fried foods in restaurants often are cooked in trans-fats, so unless the restaurant explicitly states they do not fry in trans fats, stay away from the fried stuff when eating out.
3. Dyes with numbers after them
Natural dyes are more expensive than chemical dyes.
Smart Tip:Look for the numbers. When you scan the ingredients, the dyes are usually at the end of the list. If you find them present, move along. Again, opting for organic alternatives may be a good bet as you try and find new foods that avoid chemical dyes.
Ask this question
As a rule of thumb, when I buy a processed food I ask myself, “Could I actually make this in my kitchen?” Could I assemble all these ingredients and replicate it if I wanted to? This one question helps me weed out many of the problem ingredients we discussed, not to mention others like artificial sweeteners, chemical additives, and preservatives. If the product has ingredients that I recognize and often use in my own kitchen, I feel pretty comfortable buying it.
I rely on processed food in my diet because of the convenience they provide. I don’t have the time to make everything we eat from scratch. But in relying on processed foods, I don’t want to sacrifice my family’s health.
Elizabeth is a children's book author and designer of knit and crochet character hats under the brand The Ruthless Crafter. In her spare time she loves to read, watch movies, spend time with her family, and swim. She lives a full, happy life in Kitchener, Ontario with her husband and their two children.