Going to the store with the intention of eating healthy can be a huge challenge for so many reasons, not the least of which is the huge variety of products. When you’re trying to change your eating habits and make healthier choices, it can be hard enough to walk by those cookies or chips without them “jumping” into your cart. You shouldn’t also have to navigate the confusing packaging and labeling that companies use to make their products look healthier when, in fact, they are not. Although grocery store tours with people are my favorite way to answer these questions as we go aisle-by-aisle, I’ll try to clear up some of the most confusing packaging and labeling on the shelves in this post so it’s easier to make good choices.
As I’ve mentioned before, a gluten-free diet is a very necessary part of life for someone with Celiac disease. It is currently the only treatment and consuming even small traces of gluten can cause serious damage to the intestines that can lead to nutrient deficiencies and malnutrition. However, as I’m sure you’re aware, gluten-free has become something of a fad diet in recent years. While this has dramatically increased the number and availability of gluten-free products for those who do live with Celiac, others have become convinced that these products are automatically a healthier option. In reality, gluten-free products are often highly processed and have far more ingredients than their conventional counterparts in order to achieve a similar taste and texture. This doesn’t include naturally gluten-free foods like grains (quinoa, millet, etc.), meats, fruits, and veggies, all of which are certainly healthy and just happen to be gluten-free as well. A gluten-free cookie is still a cookie. Of course, all foods can fit into a healthy, balanced diet but if you don’t have Celiac and can safely consume gluten, you aren’t getting any kind of health benefit by eating a gluten-free cookie (or other item) over a regular one.
“All natural” seems to be slapped on just about every package these days. The major thing to keep in mind is that all natural is NOT a regulated term. It can be put on pretty much any product and is often found on foods that actually contain quite a few ingredients that many wouldn’t consider “natural”. If you want a product that is truly all natural, take a look at the ingredients panel for things that you could use in your very own kitchen to prepare the same product. If you don’t recognize an ingredient or couldn’t easily buy it to use in your own kitchen, it’s probably not natural. For things like meats and eggs, it’s best to research the farm or company to see what their individual practices are for producing a product that is “natural”.
I’ve covered organic before but the main takeaway here is similar to the above points – just because a product says it is organic doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Organic just refers to the growing or production practices of the product and it’s ingredients. Organic desserts are just like regular desserts, except with organic butter, sugar, flour, etc.
Although not a labeling term, I think this point fits in well with the previous two. Many people associate the color green with a healthy choice and food companies take advantage of this. Don’t assume that just because your frozen pizza comes in a green, “healthy-looking” box that it is a healthy choice. Healthier, less processed products often do have green packaging, but check the nutrition facts panel and ingredients list for the full story before tossing it in your cart.
low fat or fat free
These became a trend around the early 90s but these products are still around. There are a few reasons why these aren’t the best choice:
1) Fat is a huge part of the flavor and texture of many products and, when it is removed, something has to be put in it’s place or no one would want to eat it. This is often extra sugar, meaning these products are no healthier than the original version.
2) Fat is a necessary nutrient! Saturated fats should be limited and trans fats avoided due to their negative impact on heart health but unsaturated fats (found in nuts, fish, avocados, some oils) are a beneficial and necessary part of the diet. Salad dressings are a great example – salads often contain lots of vegetables with fat soluble vitamins, meaning they need fat to be absorbed. A low fat salad dressing isn’t really doing you any favors in this case!
3) Fat contributes to satiety, or feelings of fullness. When you eat a lower fat item, you’re likely to feel less satisfied afterwards and may then end up consuming more calories than you otherwise would have in an attempt to fill up.
I’ve actually seen low fat brownie mixes with far more sugar and calories than the original version! Some products are naturally low in fat or fat free and the pacakge will often claim this since people view it as a benefit. The ones you need to look out for are low fat versions of other products. I can’t think of many situations in which the lower fat version would be a better/healthier choice (except dairy!).
Similar to above, your best bet if you’re looking for a low calorie option is to stick with foods that are naturally low in calories, like fruits and vegetables. Other products are probably highly processed and less satisfying.
Finally, hormone free is seen on many meat and dairy products these days. While useful in some circumstances, the USDA does not allow administration of hormones to any poultry or hogs so the designation of “hormone free” on these products doesn’t really mean anything special. If you are looking for a farm or company that humanely treats their animals, it is best to check out their website and do a little homework on their practices.