Last week we talked about how to read the nutrition fact part of food labels, but do you understand all those unpronounceable words in the ingredients list? Deciphering those are equally important to your health (especially when feeding small children whose smaller bodies are still developing). Here are three, quick rules to help you make better choices when grocery shopping:
Rule #1: Always read the first 5 ingredients listed: Those are the most predominant ingredients in the product (listed from highest quantity on down), and an essential part of making an informed purchase. If you have a serious food allergy (ie. nuts, shellfish etc.) any amount of those foods could be extremely harmful and should be avoided completely, but for most health issues or simply healthier choices – it’s more a matter of making informed choices and managing the amounts you consume each day.
Rule #2: Ingredients are often misleading: Deliberately misleading terms (or not) is up for debate, but they can be potentially hazardous to your health none the less. I’m talking about the highly refined, processed, or synthetic forms of sugar, fats, and preservatives that you need to know about:
- HIDDEN SUGARS: high-fructose corn syrup (watch out for any form of fructose), corn syrup, dextrose, aspartame, Sucralose etc. – the further you get away from natural sugars (which should also be consumed in moderation) the higher the risk that our bodies will experience serious health complications. Studies have shown that rats with access to a diet with high-frutcose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those consuming the same calorific amounts of natural sugars – food and beverages containing high-fructose corn syrup have been linked with cell and tissue damage that lead to diabetes. Even certain cancer cells have been known to grow faster in an environment of high-frutcose corn syrup, so why take the risk and eat what we don’t have to?
If a recipe needs a little sweetness to balance the flavors, stick to raw sugar, honey or agave nector. Keep in mind that the American Heart Association recommends that women get no more than 100 calories a day of added sugar from any source (natural or man-made), and that most men should get no more than 150 calories a day.
- TRANS FATS: Are not listed as trans fats on labels, but are instead called hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil, so don’t be fooled. Trans fats raise your bad cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein or (LDL), and decrease your good cholesterol high-density lipoprotein or (HDL). The American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fat intake to less than 1 percent of total daily calories. This is a small amount, so be on the lookout for hydrogenated oils.
- PRESERVATIVES: Be wary of artificial preservatives, and try to avoid them as much as possible. Sodium nitrates and various food coloring dyes like red 40 have been linked with cancer. Other food colorings such as yellow 6 have been thought to cause hyperactivity, and can be an underlying factor in allergies, fatigue, and skin rashes. Artificial flavorings have also been linked to allergies, asthma, and may effect thyroid function.
- GMO’s: Products with genetically modified organisms are currently not required to be labeled so, but since it is such a great selling point if a product is GM free, they will usually be labeled that way. GM free would always my preferred choice.
Rule #3: To play it extremely safe, choose packaged foods with 5 or fewer ingredients (or avoid these foods altogether): Some experts believe eating packaged foods with shorter ingredient lists is a precaution against consuming an excess of chemicals, thereby reducing potential health risks. The “five-limit-rule” is not for everyone, but feel free to try it out and tell us how it goes?
Personally, I prefer using the motto “if your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize it, avoid it.” I’m a firm believer that we want to consume real food, not “food products.” This means foregoing most processed and packaged foods, shopping the perimeter of the grocery stores, and making fresh (preferably organic) produce the lions share of what hits our plates. The best way to ensure you know exactly what you are consuming is to shop and cook for yourself!
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