Most of us enter the grocery store with good intentions: to leave with nutritious food. But when you read the packaging on your average grocery store items, it seems like everything is “good for you;” Organic crackers, grain-infused waffles and vitamin-loaded breakfast bars are just some of the packaged foods that boast healthful benefits. But how can you tell which products are good choices vs. those that are just junk food in disguise?
It boils down to two things: knowing the difference between healthy and sneaky ingredients, and then seeing where they fall on the ingredient list.
The biggest trend right now are packaged foods that tout whole grains, like crackers, bars, cookies, pancakes and pizza, according to Sara Yen, registered dietician at Children’s Hospital Boston’s Martha Eliot Health Center. The caveat is in the ratio of whole grains (or lack thereof) in relation to the rest of the ingredients.
Know what regulations mean. Yen points out that according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, any cereal that claims to be a “good source of whole grains” has to have 8 grams of whole grains per serving. Cereal that has an “excellent source of whole grains” contains 16 grams per serving.
What takes some detective work is finding out how big the serving is, and what else you’re eating in order to obtain the whole grain benefits. “Having 8 grams of whole grains in a 50-gram serving isn’t getting the biggest bang for your caloric buck,” says Yen. “Consider the ratio of what you’re eating—what are those other 42 grams made up of?”
Be careful when there aren’t regulations. Another myth is food that’s labeled “all natural.” Unlike regulations for foods that contain whole grains or heart-healthy ingredients, there aren’t regulations around what makes a food natural or not. Moreover, natural juices that claim to contain multiple servings of fruit and vegetables are lacking one very important thing: fiber. “When you’re drinking a fruit or vegetable juice, the skins and the cells are discarded most of the time, and unfortunately, that’s where the good stuff is,” says Yen.
Go for the real thing, instead of enriched or refined. Even a simple loaf of bread can be deceiving. Health-conscious consumers may steer toward dark brown breads with the words “whole wheat” or “whole grain,” but once again the proof is in the ingredient list. “Enriched or refined wheat flour is not the same as 100 percent whole wheat,” says Yen. “For something to be called a whole grain, it needs to retain its bran, germ, and endosperm, and have the words ‘100 percent’ on it.”
Look for the first ingredient. While whole grain imposters may be the most common offender, there are other notable contenders. According to Yen, some so-called healthy products contain way too much sugar to be healthy choices no matter how much fiber or whole grain they have. That includes cleverly named snacks like Nutri-Grain Bars, which promise “real fruit” in their product, but list high fructose corn syrup as the first ingredient in the filling. “The first item in the ingredient list is always the most prominent one,” says Yen. “You’re likely getting more of that than anything else.” She suggests that if sugar, high fructose corn syrup or anything with the term “hydrogenated” tops the list, then it’s probably not very healthful.
Dairy can fall into this category, too. “When it comes to yogurt, kids want the ones with Dora the Explorer on the packaging, but those are often full of sugar or artificial sweeteners that don’t offer as many nutritional benefits,” she says.