When it comes to packaged food, label claim deception is rampant. There’s an old adage that goes something like this: Don’t believe everything you hear and only half of what you see. If your goal is healthy and clean eating this should definitely be your approach to packaged food products – especially the ones with flashy label claims splashed on the front of a box or can.
Organic! All Natural! Vegan!!
We’ve all seen these types of labeling claims – and we’ve probably fallen for many of them.
I certainly don’t want to label anyone a poor food shopper, but I thought I’d dish out simple tips so you – to quote The Who – won’t get fooled again!
And sure, you could just buy only single ingredient foods (brown rice, beans, fruit, nuts, etc.) and forget about the packaged foods entirely but because so many healthy packaged foods do actually exist it’s really going to unnecessary extremes to ban them entirely. I sure don’t! But, in my pursuit of clean eating I’ve found following these rules to be the biggest help…
Clean Eating Guidelines for Choosing Healthy Packaged Foods
Tip #1: Ignore the Nutrition Facts. Read the Ingredients Instead.
All calories are not created equal. One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to eat healthy or lose weight is that they often turn to the Nutrition Facts for reference. The FDA requires all packaged foods to slap the Nutrition Facts on food labels (note: fresh foods like apples and oranges do not need to have their Nutrition Facts labeled.)
Ironically the Nutrition Facts tell you absolutely nothing about the intrinsic health and nutrition properties of the food. A perfect example is the Weight Watchers Smart Ones Chicken Salisbury Steak frozen entrée. This food (if you can really call it that?) might only have 280 calories and might look like a good choice if you were to read the Nutrition Facts but the reality is you are kidding yourself if you think eating this meal is going to help change the way you age, look and feel for the better.
As a weight loss surgeon who intimately understands the science of appetite, Andy can assure you it won’t help you achieve lasting weight loss either. The Nutrition Facts promotes the idea that all calories are equal and that “counting food” in the form of calories, carbs, fat grams, and so forth is a healthy way to lose weight and gain health. This is just not so.
Before I go further…take a look at exactly what is in the Weight Watchers Smart Ones Salisbury Steak frozen entrée as listed in the Ingredients:
Ingredients in Weight Watchers Smart Ones Salisbury Steak
Cooked Salisbury Steak patty with caramel color added (beef, water, onions, textured vegetable protein product [soy protein concentrate, caramel color], seasonings [ corn maltodextrin, salt, hydrolyzed soy and corn protein, dry onion, garlic, natural flavor, yeast extract, spice, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, extractive of rosemary, beef extract, modified cornstarch, flavor (triacetin, butter acids, flavorings, butter esters), rendered beef fat, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil], soy protein concentrate, zinc oxide, niacinamide, ferrous sulfate, copper gluconate, vitamin A palmitate, calcium pantothenate, thiamine mononitrate, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin, cyanocobalamin], bread crumbs [bleached wheat flour, dextrose, yeast, partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil, salt], asparagus, water, mushrooms, contains 2% or less of: red bell peppers, modified food starch (corn, potato), margarine (soybean oil, water, salt, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, mono- and diglycerides, soy lecithin, sodium benzoate, natural flavor, artificial flavor, beta carotene [color], vitamin A palmitate), beef base (roasted beef and concentrated beef stock, hydrolyzed corn, soy and wheat protein autolyzed yeast extract, sugar, salt, corn maltodextrin, chicken fat, corn oil, onion powder, spice extractives), onions, burgundy wine* (burgundy wine, salt, sulfites), salt, sugar, sautéed mushrooms, flavor enhancer (hydrolyzed corn gluten, soy protein and wheat gluten, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils), xanthan gum, chicken and beef stock flavor blend (potassium chloride, corn syrup solids, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, beef stock powder, chicken stock powder, corn maltodextrin), granulated garlic, pepper (black, white), flavor enhancer (dextrose, salt, autolyzed yeast extract, modified cornstarch), caramel color, canola oil, natural flavoring, onion powder, hydrolyzed soy and wheat proteins, spice extractives)
This “Smart Ones” entrée is clearly not a smart choice when you see it has ingredients like corn syrup solids, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils, soy protein concentrate and rendered beef fat (yuck!) The problem is if you rely on the Nutrition Facts for guidance you might actually think this is a healthy choice. The Nutrition Facts deceive people into thinking all calories are equal. This is just not the case.
The Nutrition Facts label is actually so difficult to interpret that the FDA publishes a ten page long, color-coded and awfully complex guide that is supposed to help the public make smart choices. It’s not working.
The Nutrition Facts label is a reflection of what Congress has said it should be in order to keep the big food companies happy. Keep in mind it is highly profitable for food companies to include cheap, nutrient-poor and highly processed ingredients such as corn syrup solids in their foods. If corn syrup is fat free and cholesterol free then that makes it a good selling point on the Nutrition Facts label.
If a food happens to have less than ½ a gram of trans fat and a food manufacturer can claim it is “Trans Fat Free” on the Nutrition Facts label then this makes for another good selling point. It might be a good selling point but it’s not good for health. In the case of trans fats even a teeny tiny bit matters…and if you eat a lot of packaged foods and/ or you eat more than a single serving (does a normal person really only eat ¾ cup of cereal?) then it adds up quick. Studies show a teeny-tiny increase of less than 3 grams of trans fats a day is enough to result in an astounding 50% increase in heart attacks and deaths (1). Bottom line, the Nutrition Facts label is very political and tells you nothing about whether the food is nutrient-dense or not. Forget about the Nutrition Facts and read the ingredients list instead.
Tip #2: Use common sense.
Avoid packaged foods containing ingredients you would not normally keep in the pantry. Ethoxylated diglycerides? Ammonium sulfate? Don’t know what these ingredients are? Neither do I. That’s why I don’t eat them!
Tip #3: Avoid Processed Empty-Calorie Vegetables Oils.
Mass market vegetable oils (“pure” vegetable oil, corn oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, etc.) are ultra-refined, pro-inflammatory oils. Not only do vegetable oils add empty calories but they also disrupt your body’s balance of omega-3 fats, which can decrease your sensitivity to insulin (increasing risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity) and increase inflammation and worsen symptoms of inflammatory conditions.
Tip #4: Don’t swallow the claim that all organic, natural and vegan foods are healthy.
While studies suggest certain organic foods have more nutrients than their conventional counterparts, the sad truth is that many organic, all-natural and vegan packaged and processed foods contain lots of refined sugar, refined empty calorie vegetable oils, and refined empty calorie flour. Organic processed foods are still processed foods. The new organic Oreo’s are STILL Oreo’s. You would be far better off eating a non-organic apple.
Recall the fat-free craze of the 1990’s? People were actually fighting over SnackWells Devil Food Cakes, then eating them by the boxful. Sure there was no fat. But there were plenty of empty calories! Well, it’s deja vu all over again as consumers flock to products advertised as “all natural” or “organic.” Avert your eyes to the label claims and read the important part off the label —-the ingredients. The print is smaller back here but the message reads loud and clear to the enlightened clean eating enthusiast.
Tip #5: Identify sweet nothings.
A simple rule of thumb is to avoid any food that has HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) in the ingredients list; if a manufacturer uses HFCS you know they are focused first and foremost on creating a food product as cheaply as possible. But in the world of vegan, organic and all-natural foods it’s easy to get stumped with healthy sounding ingredients such as barley malt, beet sugar, brown rice sugar, cane syrup, etc. These sugars supply the exact same number of empty calories as HFCS. Sugar is sugar. Since labels list ingredients by weight it is best to avoid any product that has sugar listed in the top three ingredients.
Clean Eating = Nutrient Dense Foods
Your favorite grocery store is packed with all sorts of junk foods – some more obvious than others. Know that most often the simpler the list of ingredients, the better the food.
Simple is good. But simple isn’t everything. The simple foods also need to be nutritious!
Avoid flour, sugar and refined vegetable oil as often as you can. Opt, instead, for simple, nutrient-rich, unprocessed ingredients.
1. Willet WC, et al. “Intake of trans fatty acids and risk of coronary heart disease among women.” Lancet. 1993 Mar 6; 341(8845):581-5.)