When you’re too busy to cook or you need a quick bite, opting for packaged foods can be a convenient option. When you find yourself needing a quick fix, here’s how to sift through the packaged foods and opt for options that align more closely with your health goals.
Food Facts or Sales Pitch?
Every thing on the front of a packaged food is sales marketing, meaning it's health benefits can be misleading because the company is trying to get you to buy their product.
However, here are some phrases to take into consideration when choosing packaged food.
Antibiotic free - all cattle in the US are antibiotic free; it’s a requirement by law. If a farmer needs to treat an animal with antibiotics, there is a withdrawal period before the animal can go to market to assure the antibiotics are out of the system.
Simply made - this refers to minimally processed ingredients. That an mean a lot of different things. Refer to the food label on the back of the package for more insight into this claim.
All natural - this is only regulated for eggs & poultry, not what’s on shelves. And even then, natural is a broad term. In the USDA's view, “any natural meat, poultry, or egg product is simply one that is minimally processed & doesn't have any artificial flavorings, colorings, or preservatives added after slaughter.” Most meat products qualify as natural under this definition, so it's a pretty meaningless claim.
Multigrain - Multi, meaning it most likely includes many refined, unnecessary grains.
Light or reduced fat - This can mean that they’ve added additional ingredients into the product. Check the food label in back to learn more.
Party in the Back
The back of the packaging is where the truth really lies. This is where food companies are required -- by law -- to reveal what is actually in the food they are selling, as well as the calorie and macronutrient breakdown of that food.
Always keep an eye on a food label's ingredients list.
This is where companies are required to be transparent about what exactly is in their food. Foods are listed in descending order of ingoing weight at the time of the manufacture of the food. Meaning, the food listed at the top of the list is used most, followed in descending order by the rest of the ingredients used in smaller amounts.
Try to eat packaged foods with fewer ingredients. They tend to be more aligned with healthy eating.
And, when you can, opt for fresh options, such as chicken, beef, fish, bananas, avocados, apples, broccoli. They don't come with an ingredients list. That one item is the only ingredient.
The next major element is the nutrition facts. The nutrition facts will give you a breakdown of the calories and macronutrients, as well as a few key vitamins and minerals.
It's super important to pay attention to serving sizes and servings per container!
Just because something is in a small package doesn’t mean that it only contains one serving. Many juices will be 3-4 servings for a small package or bottle. With something like nut butters, the servings can quickly and surprisingly add up when a serving is only 1 or 2 tablespoons.
Here are 6 quick tips to remember the next time you’re looking at these labels!
1️⃣ Look at the amount of food that is actually in the serving size. Compare it to how much you actually eat!
2️⃣ Read the Daily Value (DV). This tells you how much of a nutrient is in that food.
▪️5% or less is a little
▪️15% or more is a lot⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
3️⃣ Limit trans fat, added sugars, and sodium.
4️⃣ Ingredients are listed from the highest amount to the lowest.
5️⃣ Scan the first 3 ingredients. They make up the bulk of what you are eating.
6️⃣ Natural does not necessarily equate to better! The sun is natural, but is known to cause skin cancer with high exposure.
Most importantly, remember: being a nutrition label detective is awesome. But at the end of the day, consuming real, whole, unprocessed, unpackaged foods is the best way to live your best life.