In an ideal world, we’d all eat fresh, home-cooked meals using organic ingredients. But the reality is that most of us are simply too busy or tired to live up to this expectation, so we rely heavily on frozen, packaged, and processed foods.
While most of these items are safe, there are five red flags that every savvy food shopper should embrace to ensure a healthy diet.
1. Mind the ingredients. How many ingredients are listed? The general rule of thumb is that there should be no more than ten ingredients, and you should be able to identify most of them. To be a savvy food shopper means understanding what you’re eating (and feeding to others). If someone handed you a plate of Tertiary Butylhydroquinone, would you eat it? Don’t be afraid to whip out your smartphone and Google ingredients you’re unsure about.
2. Check sodium content. Food manufacturers are forced to put high amounts of sodium in their products for the sole purpose of extending their shelf lives. You’ll find high amounts of sodium in pantry items, but the most dramatic amounts are apparent in frozen foods–some containing a whopping 1000mg per serving. Since USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) recommends we consume no more than 2300mg of sodium daily, aim to purchase items with fewer than 400mg per serving.
3. Beware “fat-free” and “low-fat”. Marketers know that most of us are watching our weight, they work hard to fabricate foods that contain little-to-no fat. Although there is truth to their labels, the lack of fat comes at a price: more chemicals and higher carbohydrates. Next time you instinctively reach for a low-fat, or fat-free items, grab its fat-filled counterpart and compare the nutritional info. A few dozen extra calories are usually worth it.
4. Expiration dates matter. While you check that the product hasn’t already expired, also see that it doesn’t have a shocking shelf life. If a product can sit in the pantry or freezer for several years, it’s a red flag that there are many unhealthy chemicals helping it out. Skip these items and opt for perishable items with less ingredients instead.
5. Understand sugar. As we become more informed about sugar-free products containing chemicals like aspartame and sucralose, marketers are turning to what they’re labeling as “naturally sweetened” products. Although these sweeteners–including brown sugar, cane sugar, and beet sugar–are healthier, they still require processing before hitting the shelf and can contribute to high sugar content. For a healthy diet, avoid added sugars and aim for less than 9 grams per serving.