Now, more than ever, it is important to recognize and understand the ingredients that are in the foods that you are putting in your body, to know the red flags in particular, and to have a general understanding of where the food came from. America's food industry is amazing because it feeds millions of people every day, but often food companies are using cheap ingredients and processed food to save money, and certainly over the past few decades this problem has grown exponentially.
Knowing your way around the nutrition label when you are shopping is very important - for starters we all know (even if we don't know why!) obvious things like fiber and protein are "good", saturated fats, trans fats, and sugars are "bad," the more calories the "worse" it is for you, but that is only part of the story. Additionally, if something is "organic" or "all-natural" we often assume it is healthy, though that isn't always the case. An organic cinnamon bun is still a CINNAMON BUN! More important than descriptive words, and at least as important as the nutrition facts are the ingredients list. I usually look at the ingredients list immediately after scanning the nutrition facts. Here are a few things to look for:
High Fructose Corn Syrup
If it's there, don't buy it. Recently, scientific studies have been done to show that High Fructose Corn Syrup IS worse for you than table sugar. Both are chemically similar - sucrose (table sugar) is 50/50 glucose and fructose, whereas HFCS is about 55/45 fructose to glucose. There isn't conclusive evidence why it seems to be "worse" for you, but let me explain to you how it's created and then maybe you'll get some insight. Corn is milled to create "corn syrup" which is pure glucose. Then enzymes are introduced to chemically alter a portion of the glucose to fructose, and then that mixture is dumped back into the original mixture to create the 55/45 mix. That is cheaper than just getting straight up cane sugar on the table, and acts more as a preservative, but at what cost? Fructose itself isn't "bad," in fact it digests slightly slower in your body than straight glucose and is the sugar found in fruits. But the way HFCS is created...would you want to put that in your body? The fructose exists in a completely unnatural state.
Hydrogenated or partially Hydrogenated Oils
Again - if it's there don't buy it! Like HFCS, the process of creating these oils is completely unnatural! Perfectly good oil, which is high in fat, but low in saturated fats, is bombarded with hydrogen at high pressure. The result is an oil that has a much longer shelf-life. But - the old fats in the oil are transformed into what have recently been discovered and named as "trans fats." These fats are linked to raising your "bad" cholesterol levels and again - why would you put a foreign object like a trans fat in your body? The truth is, the FDA doesn't require reporting trans fats if they are under .5 grams. So, if you see Hydrogenated Oil, or Partially Hydrogenated Oil - it's a deal breaker. There are trace amounts of trans fats. If you eat one pack of Keebler Cheese crackers, you're probably ok. If you eat the whole box in a week - well the trans fat probably adds up! The irony is Hydrogenated oils were originally used to make margarine, a "healthier" alternative to butter. Now we know better!
High sodium doesn't add calories, so it is often overlooked. The truth is, sodium is quickly becoming the "new sugar." We've collectively known for a long time you shouldn't eat a lot of sugar - well now is the time to start fighting the sodium battle! The FDA is re-evaluating the daily value of sodium to be closer to 1,500 mg per person, which is about half the daily value now. Too much sodium in the diet can lead, short term, to dehydration, water retention (ironically), and bloating. Long term, it can affect your circulatory system, heart, and cholesterol levels. Eating out is one of the worst ways to eat way too much sodium. I could (and probably will!) write a whole email about sodium some day. For now, check the label and avoid high sodium foods - processed or deli meats, olives and quick meals are usually loaded. Just getting low-sodium ham or turkey at the deli can make a big difference. Or when you buy rice pilaf, only put half of the "spice pack" in the pot. Be careful too - a lot of "low fat" foods are loaded with sodium to add flavor - this applies to salad dressings.
Whole grain vs. whole wheat vs. multi-grain vs. ???
First just terminology. 100% Whole grain foods use the entire grain plant. White bread/white flour products by contrast are only ground up endosperm of the plant, which lacks the fiber, antioxidants, and B vitamins in the bran and germ of the plant, and is much cheaper to produce. Whole grain is a descriptor for any grain plant (wheat, corn, oat etc.). Whole wheat means whole grain, but only describes wheat products. Multi-grain just means there is more than one plant involved, it doesn't say anything about whether it is whole grain or not.
Any cracker, pasta, or bread that claims to be whole wheat, immediately look at the ingredient list. If you see ONLY whole wheat flour, than it is 100% whole wheat. If you see WHEAT flour, ENRICHED flour, or even UNBLEACHED enriched flour, it is NOT 100% whole wheat! So don't trust the label "whole grain," look at the ingredients and make sure there is no regular wheat flour hiding in there. All "enriched" means is they add some of the B vitamins back into the flour, but it doesn't come close to the real thing. For example, Whole Grain Ritz crackers are probably only about 30-40% wheat flour, the rest is unbleached enriched white flour with a couple vitamins thrown in. There's just enough whole wheat flour to give it that slightly darker color which fools you!
Things that you have no freakin' idea what they are
To illustrate this point, I attached a label for Honey Nut Cheerios breakfast bars, below. OMG. What the heck are some of these ingredients? Cheerios are supposed to be a whole grain oat cereal. A box of Quaker Oats says "whole grain oats." A box of cheerios says "whole grain oats" and handful of other strange ingredients - not great, but tolerable. But this breakfast bar is SO FAR from real food I can't even start.
For me, the general rule is always the FEWER ingredients the BETTER. If the pasta says "whole wheat durum flour" and nothing else, buy it. If the peanut butter says "peanuts, salt" and nothing else, buy that one. If the raison bran says "whole wheat and raisons" - well you get the idea.
So bottom line - make your Label IQ higher! You aren't a snob if you look at the label before throwing it in the shopping basket! If you don't know what it is, google it (on your smartphone in the aisle! LOL). AND just because it's at Whole Foods, doesn't mean it won't make you fat!
Keep pushing play and eat clean!