Almost everyone can relate to having a hectic schedule, and sometimes (or often) making food choices based on options that are quick and easy to prepare. However, in many cases, these convenient foods are packed full of unhealthy additives, GMOs and chemicals. For instance, even foods disguised as “healthy”—such as frozen broccoli—can actually contain hidden food additives listed in the ingredients, such as those used for coloring, to enhance flavor and/or texture, or added for preservative purposes. To make shopping even more confusing, sometimes foods labeled as “organic” are not the healthiest option, as they can be full of excess sugar, fat or fillers. Fortunately, with a little extra mindfulness, learning to look at labels can pay off big rewards for healthier eating.
Fill up on good fiber, not fillers
It’s hard not to love biting into a chewy cookie, or eating a spoonful of creamy peanut butter or tangy yogurt. However, the pleasure may be quickly paused after a look at the ingredient list and understanding why a certain food’s texture seems so satisfying on the tongue.
Emulsifiers are a widely used additive often found in all of the above foods and many more such as salad dressing, mayonnaise, ice cream, pudding, cheese, and other packaged foods.Emulsifiers are utilized to extend shelf life, thicken watery ingredients, and add texture. Some common names include carboxymethycellulose, polysorbate 80, lecithin, carrageenan, polyglycerols, xanthan and other “gums.”
A study conducted by Georgia State University found that even low concentrations of emulsifiers can disrupt healthy gut bacteria. Additional studies from Emory and Cornell found similar results, linking emulsifiers to intestinal inflammation. In turn, this inflammation can trigger inflammatory bowel disease and metabolic syndrome. The prevalence of emulsifiers in many common foods might explain why diseases like IBS, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are on the rise—along with type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other obesity-related disorders associated with metabolic syndrome.
Instead of these potentially harmful fillers, look for foods full of natural texture as well as fiber, which is known to promote weight loss, lower blood sugar levels, and fight constipation, according to Healthline. Some good choices include pears, strawberries, apples, artichokes, Brussel sprouts, lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, quinoa, oats, almonds, chia seeds.
Opt for “good” fats whenever possible
Although the low-fat food trend has come and gone and most people are aware of the fact that some fat is actually healthy and good for the body, there is often a lot of misunderstanding surrounding fat and food labels.
Trans fats are one of the most ubiquitous ingredients, often substituted for butter, lard and coconut oil. The processed fats extend the shelf life of products, and are typically called “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” and “vegetable shortening”. Trans fats are found in margarine, commercially baked goods, frozen foods, soups, crackers, and many other processed foods. According to the Mayo Clinic, there is a direct link between trans fats and LDL ("bad") cholesterol and lower HDL ("good") cholesterol, as they have been shown to raise the body’s level of LDL—therefore leading to an increased risk of heart disease.
Instead, opt for monounsaturated fats, which instead raise HDL cholesterol (and lower LDL), says WebMD. These can be found in olive oil, nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, avocados, fish like salmon, mackerel, and albacore tuna, eggs, and ground flaxseed.
Watch out for sneaky snacks
Unfortunately, many of the organic food manufacturers know to hit their potential customers’ pain point of wanting fast, tasty, and “healthy” snacks. As a result, many companies have cropped up that claim to offer organic, GMO-free foods that may appear at first glance to be a great alternative to conventional snack foods. For instance, “organic” cheese snack crackers seem healthier than chips. While they may contain real butter and cheese instead of artificial ingredients, they are void of nutritional value, and are full of processed wheat flour, vegetable oil, and sugar. Snacks like these may satiate a craving for crunchiness, but lack protein and fiber, which aid satiety. An apple with organic peanut butter would be a better choice that fulfills crunch, protein, and fiber.
Choose whole foods for the cleanest eating
In general, a good rule of thumb when reading food labels is to look for ingredients that are easily pronounced and recognized—like brown rice, water, vinegar, etc. Of course, choosing organic fruits and vegetables where no label (other than certified organic) is necessary is also one of the best ways to avoid chemicals, fillers and artificial ingredients. Likewise, opt for organic poultry, beef, and sustainable seafood. All of these whole foods are full of vitamins and nutrients that the body requires for complete wellness, plus they won’t be full of empty calories.
So, be mindful when shopping, be sure to read labels and understand what’s actually in that product and buy organic, whole foods whenever possible.