Thursday, April 24, 2008

read your food labels

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A while back I posted off-hand about avoiding certain ingredients in food, like high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). While most people might not really consider what is in their food (I mean, hey, it tastes good, so it must be okay, yeah? Or as Sheryl Crow sang, "If it makes you happy, it can't be that bad."), I tend to spend a lot of time doing reading at the grocery store (out of curiosity now, rather than necessity). It tends to drive Jude nuts, so he doesn't shop with me much, and I stick to what I know when I'm with him. Since I started looking at labels, I don't purchase as many processed foods - I tend to shop the perimeter of the grocery store, and only venture into the central aisles for a few products.

I recently had a reader write to me about listing examples of products that I have found that fit my criteria for acceptable ingredients, so I thought I'd take a shot at writing some out.

In general, I try to avoid the following (listed, I suppose, in order of what matters more to me):

artificial sweeteners such as sucralose (Splenda), aspartame (NutraSweet/Equal), saccharin (sweet n' low)
high fructose corn syrup
dairy and meat products made from animals treated with artificial hormones or antibiotics
monosodium glutamate (MSG)
partially hydrogenated and fully hydrogenated oils
artificial food colorings (such as yellow #5, FD&C colors
genetically modified organisms (GMO's) (typically products containing corn and soy)
pesticide/herbicide/chemical covered produce

I just wanted to note that I avoid many of these things because there is an established family history of intolerance of some of the ingredients - artificial sweeteners causing headaches, MSG causing headaches, and artificial food colorings causing behavioral problems.

I knew I shouldn't have looked. I found a page that lists food additives, and it makes me want to add more to my list. But, I thought I'd put it out there for your information.

So, on to the products that I use. Generally, if you look for organic products, you can avoid most of these ingredients (although you should still read the labels). When organic isn't widely available, you'll find that many conventional food manufacturers are coming out with their own "organic" or "natural" alternatives. Also, you may find that store brands have fewer of the ingredients you wish to avoid. Here are some that you'll regularly see in my kitchen, purchased at my local grocery store:

Lunch meat - Hormel Natural Choice no preservative, nitrites or nitrates, msg, or other artificial ingredients

ketchup - Heinz Organic - no HFCS, which is my biggest problem with other ketchups

- Amana Bread (a store brand) - no HFCS, and minimal artificial ingredients. I admit, I opted for this instead of Natural Ovens' bread because it was less expensive. The thing I loved about the Natural Ovens bread is that it tasted like fresh, homemade bread (to me). But, I make my own now.

cold cereal - Mom's Best is a great alternative to many breakfast cereals, at a relatively inexpensive price. I especially like that it is family-owned, as opposed to the Kashi cereal that I sometimes buy, which is ownED by Kellogs (just because it's organic doesn't mean it's a small business!)

broth - Swanson's Certified Organic broths - no msg

produce - Earthbound Farm lettuce, organic apples, celery, potatoes. Most produce I have available at my grocery is not organic, so when I can I try to buy according to what tends to have the most pesticides. Aside from that, I buy local, when possible.

I'm sure there are other products in my kitchen I could list, but that's a small start. I suspect that there are some products that I don't even think to put on the list, because I read the label so long ago, I don't remember what similar products have that I avoid. For most other products, I don't have a particular brand that I stick with, but I use the principle of avoiding the "low fat, low cal, low sugar" labels. The "real" thing might have more fat, calories, or sugar, but the idea is to use the "real" thing in moderation, instead of getting something with a host of questionable ingredients for the sake of eating more of that item. As a general rule, if I don't know what it is, or can't pronounce it, then I question whether I should eat it.

Although label reading might sound daunting, take it one step at a time. Choose a product that you buy regularly, such as bread. Pick up the package that you have at home, and look to see if there are ingredients you'd rather avoid. If you find your product doesn't pass muster, the next time you are grocery shopping, take a look at the other bread labels, and see if you can find one that fits your preference. Once you've decided on a bread that you like, take it home. The next time you go shopping, you don't have to read the labels for bread anymore, and you can use that extra 5 minutes to read the label for the next product you want to change. It's kind of like a snow ball - as you address change one product at a time, your pantry will soon be filled with better foods than before!

Don't shop like a robot. Take a look around when you go grocery shopping, and you'll find all kinds of new products popping up in obscure places in your grocery store. That's actually where I spend my label reading time now. When I see a new product, I check out the label to see if it's worth considering replacing one of my current products.

I find that reading labels goes a long way towards not eating foods that I'm tempted to eat or buy. I pick it up, read the label and gingerly replace such products on the shelf. There are so many unnatural ingredients that it's liable to self-destruct...


Anonymous said...

Excellent examples of what foods you choose and how you choose them!

Anna said...

The "real thing"- YES! Double yes, even.

I know, for myself, I'd excuse drinking more diet pop because it's 'free' rather than drinking in moderation. Drinking (well, I can't call it real...) regular pop makes me drink less, which is overall much better for me.
That's a bad example overall, anyway, because even moderation is too much. But I do get what you're saying, and it's a pet peeve for me.
The biggest frustration is when people around me push the artificial junk on me, because it's "better for me!" ACK!

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